CityPress - - Business - LE­SETJA MALOPE le­setja.malope@city­press.co.za

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 part­time 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 cochair 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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