A true servant of the people

Johannesburg - Meticulous and soft-spoken, yet stern and religious – these are some of the words used to describe retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe, who is currently serving as South Africa’s first tax ombudsman.

Ngoepe is highly regarded by South Africans as a human rights activist and a man of integrity, having proven his mettle on the Bench as the former judge president of the Pretoria High Court.

His excellence has also earned him accolades from abroad: Ngoepe recently added another feather to his academic cap, with the National University of Colombia in South America – through its autonomous arm, the Open and Distance National University – having conferred an honorary doctorate on him.

This adds to his tally of three such honours, from the universities of Limpopo, Venda and South Africa.

Ngoepe served as chancellor of the University of SA from 2001 until he retired from the post in December.

“All of those honorary degrees are very special to me,” said Ngoepe, adding that he had no idea what attracted such goodwill from the Spanish-speaking country.

He has been told that his former positions as a part-time judge at the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, established by the African Union – the first and, as yet, only South African to serve there – and as Unisa’s chancellor are what caught the university’s attention.

In an interview ahead of Youth Day, Ngoepe said he regarded June 16 1976 as one of the most significant days in the country’s history.

The events of that incendiary day also held particular personal significance as it signalled a turning point in his professional life. This was the day that Ngoepe was admitted as an attorney, kickstarting his lifelong career as a man of laws and giving the public the privilege of experiencing one of the sharpest legal minds on the continent.

“Some of my friends used to joke that it was actually the admission of the first black African as an attorney to an Afrikaans firm that caused the riots,” he said.

“Growing up, I did not know what I was going to do. If anybody had asked me when I was doing my junior certificate what I wanted to do, I would probably have said I did not know.

“Maybe I would have said I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse, even though in the 1960s men were not comfortable being nurses. I might have said anything other than wanting to be a lawyer because I did not know anything about lawyers.”

He considered studying law only in his matric year.

Ngoepe attended Nkhumishe Primary School in his home village of Ga-Matlala in Limpopo and matriculated at Mokomene High, where he was a boarder.

He read for his law degree at the then University of the North – now the University of Limpopo – and began his career in Ga-Kgapane township, working as a public prosecutor.

“It was all right, but my heart was not in it. So, from the day I walked into that job, I was already looking for another job. My heart was set on getting articles so I could be an attorney,” he said.

He left that position after four months.

Asked if he was always an academic, he laughed: “Let me just say that I was not a bad student. At that time, some of us never thought we would see a black person being a judge in our lifetime.

“It is not that we lost hope, but we felt that it would take a very long time. So, the immediate objective was to practise as a lawyer and help as many people as possible.”

He recalled that, at the time, black lawyers did not have the opportunity to practise commercial law.

“The economy was in the hands of white people, as it is today, and they did not use black lawyers. So, one’s choices were limited.

“You had no choice as a black lawyer to do human rights cases such as political cases. It was your responsibility,” he said, highlighting the moral and social obligations inextricably tied to legal practice.

Ngoepe, who spent almost 50 years in the legal field, said his current post as tax ombud was for a fixed term.

Of the challenges facing judges, he said that although they were part of the community, they had to apply the law with restraint.

“Judges need to be careful not to isolate themselves. They have to bear in mind that they must always be seen to be neutral and recuse themselves from a case if necessary.”

An important aspect of Ngoepe’s glittering career was his appointment by then president Nelson Mandela to co-chair the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the dawn of our democracy. Another notable member of that committee was Constitutional Court Judge Sisi Khampepe, who was a lawyer at the time.

He has also had a stint in Namibia being an acting judge and recalls presiding over a case between a foreign judge and a Namibian minister.

Asked about his life outside of work and whether he was a dab hand in the Ngoepe household, he laughed: “I would strongly argue that I am useful. Before I call for outside help, I always try to fix things myself.”

An ardent Moroka Swallows fan, Ngoepe has found himself without a Premier Soccer League team to support now that his favoured squad has been officially relegated to the fourth division.

“I am in as much pain as Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi – a staunch fan who has been actively trying to reposition the team – because I have always been a Swallows supporter. I have just as much desire as Lesufi has to see the team revived.”

He said the fact that he opted not to support any other team in the league had worked out well as he enjoyed watching the sport more: “I have no stress.”

When it comes to international football, Ngoepe is a fan of Barcelona and Arsenal, but voices his disappointment at the renewal of the contract of controversial Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger – despite facing criticism from supporters.

“I acknowledge that Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo is a good player, but he is not my favourite,” said Ngoepe, who favours Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and, on the home front, Sundowns midfielder Sibusiso Vilakazi.

As a third-generation Lutheran, he considers himself a religious man.

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