BOOK REVIEW: In the footsteps of a giant

2016-11-16 09:16

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My Own Liberator: A Memoir 
by Dikgang Moseneke

Picador Africa

412 pages


In the foreword to My Own Liberator former President Thabo Mbeki quotes Alexander Hamilton saying that only a small number of people have sufficient skill in the law to qualify them as judges. Even fewer still are able to unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge. Of this elite group Dikgang Moseneke was so distinguished that he was promoted to deputy chief justice of the Republic of South Africa.

Indeed one gets the sense reading this memoir that you are walking in the footsteps of a giant. Moseneke traces his ancestry on both his paternal and maternal side with great reverence, illustrating the value he attaches to family, hard work and education. He pays tribute to everyone that helped define him as a husband, father, lawyer and ultimately, guardian of our Constitution. It is obvious from this very personal account of his life that a strict moral code, a deep empathy for those affected by apartheid and an unflinching refusal to accept its injustices inevitably shaped him into the jurist he is today.

In the calm and reserved way so typical of Moseneke, he describes intensely painful moments in a way so understated that it in itself is heart breaking. When the 15 year old Dikgang is arrested, held in solitary confinement and beaten to within an inch of his life for organising as a member of the PAC you cannot help but think of his perceptive eyes looking at you from the bench of the Constitutional Court. Where is the resentment, you wonder? The irony of the judicial system’s unfair treatment of the man who would one day become its champion does not escape you. It is also during this trial where his curiosity about the law is peaked for the first time.

The details of Moseneke’s 10 year stay on Robben Island are fascinating and refreshing. Like many other political prisoners he mentally escapes his confinement by immersing himself in his studies. He tells of how an impressionable young version of himself writes his matric exam on the island with Walter Sisulu and how it impressed him that the struggle stalwart insisted on getting this qualification he didn’t need. Moseneke himself finishes a Bachelor’s degree in law and is forced to do a B Juris degree as well because political prisoners aren’t allowed to study towards a post-graduate degree. He goes on to describe prison life in a way that makes it seem almost bearable, with tales of soccer matches and a chess club, of which Jacob Zuma was the founder and organiser. The intensely personal details of how he meets the first girl he ever loved in the 16 year old Aletta Marsh during this time is as heartwarming as it is devastating. 

Moseneke ultimately rises as one of the country’s top legal minds. He has a hand in forming the Black Lawyers Association, which in turn starts the African Law Review. He helps to draft the interim Constitution and finally becomes its guardian and champion for 15 years. His is a story that at times reads like fiction and is ultimately best summed up by himself: “Out of all of this two cardinal lessons emerged. First, you cannot merely dream about your revolutionary ideals. You have to take real and concrete steps to pursue legitimate goals. The second lesson was that I was my own liberator.”

In the end Moseneke casts a shadow over his own story of liberation when he asks whether our democratic transition was all in vain. Have we, despite the progress in building our constitutional democracy failed the millions still living in poverty? And did the founders of our democracy ensure the requisite mechanisms to ensure that socio-economic transformation takes place? These are questions that seemingly plague him. Perhaps the answers to his questions will crystallise in time for the second installment of his memoir, which will focus on his time on the bench. Until then we will have to trust that the foundation laid by great men like him will be enough to take us forward.

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