Former political prisoner graduates with master's degree – almost 50 years after submission

Prof Raymond Suttner. (Supplied)
Prof Raymond Suttner. (Supplied)

Former political prisoner Professor Raymond Suttner will graduate with a Master of Laws (LLM) from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in December – almost 50 years after he submitted it.

In 1969, Suttner's LLM thesis on legal pluralism in South Africa was refused because it quoted Jack Simons, who was banned as a listed communist.

When Suttner's supervisor instructed him to remove the quotes prior to examination, he refused and instead withdrew the dissertation.

"I was also a liberal at the time and my understanding of my liberalism was that I could not write anything where I claimed credit for ideas without acknowledging these," he explained.

"For that reason, I believed I had no choice but to withdraw the thesis."

He hopes that the submission of his thesis will give Simons the recognition he deserves.

"This work extended beyond African customary law and covered many disciplines. At Simons' memorial service in St Georges Cathedral in 1995, Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs referred to him as one of the great teachers of the 20th century," he recalled.

"Many former students and scholars of all political persuasions will bear testimony to this."

Five-month search for copy of thesis

Suttner insists that he may not have written a word without Simons' support, who was also a mentor to the emerging scholar.

It was through the intervention of professor of public law at UCT Professor Dee Smythe that Suttner's thesis was resubmitted for examination.

"We proposed to Prof Suttner the course of action that we subsequently embarked on," she said.

"At the time, Prof Suttner was actually not sure if he still had a copy, and it took about five months for him to find it. It had been hand-typed on manuscript paper and was delivered to us in hard copy in early 2018.

"We were all very clear that the dissertation must stand on its own merits, meeting the criteria for the degree. Prof Hugh Corder (acting dean of law) and I read it and were both very impressed with the breadth and rigour of the work. We felt that it would certainly stand up to the scrutiny of examination. In fact, it has remarkable contemporary resonance."

UCT spokesperson Thami Nkwanyane said that the institution was focused on remedying the injustices of the past.

"UCT recognises that the institution's heritage – like our country's – is not only about celebrating our proudest moments but also acknowledging the instances where the university has participated in unfairness and remedying these," he said.

Suttner is currently a visiting professor and strategic adviser at the University of Johannesburg's faculty of humanities.

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