A tribute to Judge Thembile Skweyiya

2015-07-09 14:56

While growing up, my grandmother used to refer to me as “chief”, she thought I’ll study Law and become a magistrate, because ‘then’ magistrates were highly regarded in our community, especially the black community. People would be asked to stand when the magistrate approached their ‘crown’ chair in court.They were hailed like Kings and Chiefs. Magistrates were highly acclaimed and regarded in our traditional rural communities. Also, magistrates presided over the fate of ‘criminals’ and those accused of criminal acts, so the same positions and respect which were afforded to chiefs and kings was enjoyed by magistrates too. I suppose my grandmother wanted me to be hailed—presumably, the psychological spillover effect of that (to my family members) and especially her, would have been satisfying, I imagine. I learnt about Judges later on in my life, and the respect and prestige ‘apportioned’ to them supersedes that of magistrates. As a result, I grew up respecting magistrates and judges to this day.

This is why I’ve decided to scribble something, however brief about Judge Skweyiya, whom I personally met and had the chance of listening to.

Early this morning (9th July, 2015), I heard on the news bulletin of SAfm that the Constitutional court is looking for a judge to replace the retired Constitutional court judge, Judge Thembile Skweyiya. What a shock! Even worse, the poor news reader couldn’t even pronounce Skweyiya's name properly. I was shocked because I never heard the news of Skweyiya retiring, and when I got to my office this morning, I decided to google the news reporting on the retirement of Skweyiya. Shocking!

The South African media has yet again picked and chose the leaders that South Africans must learn about, and the name/s which South Africans must remember. I personally feel the SA media did not cover Judge Skweyiya retirement adequately compared to judges like; Langa, Chaskalson, Sachs etc. This could be due to the fact that Judge Skweyiya lived a very private, a life that is purported to be ‘Judge like’. A life which made Skweyiya even more humble. During a special sitting in the Constitutional court to honor Judge Skweyiya, the former Speaker of the National Assemble Mr Max Sisulu opined in 2014 that Skweyiya is ‘always soft spoken, thoughtful and humble” (6th may, 2014).

Judge Skweyiya’s career started after he graduated both BSoc and later LLB respectively in 1963 and 1967 at the then University of Natal now UKZN. In 1970 he became advocate of the Supreme Court of SA. 1974 he was appointed Advocate of the High Court in Lesotho. Received senior counsel status in 1989 (the status Dali Mpofu allegedly confided to Cyril Ramaphosa about during the Marikana commission). Skweyiya is the first African to receive the counsel status which was introduced in South Africa in 1970. So it took approximately 19 years for the apartheid government to recognise the works of an African in the law fraternity. I wonder how long it takes today, considering that Dali Mpofu was found to be in ‘conflict of interest’ by allegedly asking Ramaphosa to ‘pull some strings’ for him to get the senior counsel status.

Judge Skweyiya participated in the drafting of our ‘beloved’ constitution. I remember listening to him narrate a story of how our constitution came about in Hogsburg, Eastern Cape, to a group of students from the University of Fort Hare, Rhodes, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2012, to which I was part.

Skweyiya was not only involved in the process of drafting the constitution, he took part in the research that was done prior the official draft constitution and final Constitution that was adopted and signed by former late president Mandela. The research included visiting different countries in the quest for a more human centric and secular constitution.

He played an important role in the establishment of this democracy South Africa enjoys today, a constitution that brags of a very important section called the “Bill of Rights”—which many use as a harmless weapon to fight injustices in South Africa. He played an important role because he experienced the wrath of apartheid first hand.

Skweyiya began his legal career during the time when the South African courts were complicit, and served as a critical element in entrenching the ideology of apartheid. And in 1995 he was appointed as acting judge of the high court in Natal and Eastern Cape, a position he held till 2001. Hence, I argue he was involved in the establishment of our constitution right from the draft, to the signing--up to its implementation.

Skweyiya acted as judge of the Constitution from 2001 to 2002 (May) and was officially appointed by former President Mbeki to permanent Constitutional Court judge in November 2003 till his retirement in march 2014.

Judge Skweyiya represented a lot of people during the apartheid days as a human rights lawyer even though law was not his first love. People like Mxenge, who initially advised him to study law, and whom he later defended, contributed to the decision he took to study law. Skweyiya wanted to be a doctor, but the political activism in the University of Natal and Zululand made him change his mind. Mxenge is reported to have said to him; “Young man, do you're LLB and then you can be a learned doctor.” (Mail and Guardian, 25 Aug 2014). Skweyiya opines that, for a number of years, he remained convinced that time would allow him to pursue his first love (medicine) but it was not to be. He devoted his entire life to writing eloquently judgements which changed lives and put South Africa’s democracy in good standing with the world.

Skweyiya presided and wrote judgments pertaining to “rights of child, ….housing and evictions” (Sisulu, 2014) etc. He even contributed to the judgements that declared some of legislation coming from the country’s executive going before the constitutional court as unconstitional. Skweyiya saw it all.

With the recent attacks on the judiciary that have forced the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to sick a meeting with the leader of the executive, President Zuma, Skweyiya’s humbleness and wisdom will be missed. Skweyiya was the last sitting judge from the crop of judges appointed to the constitutional court earlier on in our democracy, and his experience in dealing with the executive, public and political party criticism, which he dealt with diligently, professionally and with humbleness, will be missed dearly.

The ANC and SACP has attacked the judiciary for the judgments it has made that have tended to disfavour the ruling ANC and its alliance partners. Speaking to the media, ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe and SACP’s General Secretary (cabinet member) have criticized the judiciary. Not that criticisms is wrong, but should a leader of the executive expect the courts to rule in their favour on the basis that they are a governing party! requires a response from the judiciary that is experienced in dealing with the attacks on the judges. And in my view, Skweyiya as the last ‘old’ judge provided that wisdom to the current crop of constitutional court judges. In fact, Chief Justice Mogoeng himself while bidding farewell to Skweyiya in 2014 said; "he had been inspired by the outgoing judge to soldier on, knowing that just as they made it, so will we” (Mail and Guardian, 2014, August).

Till the end of his time as a judge,  Skweyiya kept the three pillars of our constitution which he referred to during his talk at Hogsburg as the ‘cornerstones’ of our constitution namely; dignity, equality and freedom. He has left us with a responsibility to define the meaning of each ‘cornerstone’ and find ways  to realize

Judge Thembile Skweyiya and Sandiso Bazana

these pillars. For that I will always be grateful.

I personally appreciate your role in the ongoing struggle for attainment of the pillars of our constitution (dignity, equality and freedom). Your significant role in the judicial system of the country will forever be recognized, not by the media, not by politicians but by those who seek to go beyond the images of so called ‘real-leaders’ as portrayed by the media. Your life remained private as a judge, and you maintained humbleness throughout your career, and for that I salute your parents who taught you the fundamental trait of African intelligence, and that trait is humbleness.

I would like to wish you all the best in your future endeavors, I hear you have been appointed as an Inspecting Judge for the Correctional Service. I want to wish you all the best and ask you to continue your role in the development of African leaders as you have done with the Fredrich Ebert Stigtung (FES) and University of Fort Hare's Automn school.

Hope the realization of the three pillars will remain key in your new position. With you, I feel the desire in me to do the best not necessarily in the profession my grandmother would have wanted me to be, but also in the academic space that I’m in, because dignity, equality and freedom is relevant in all areas of our society.

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