Father of public interest law spawned progressive thinking
ZOLA Skweyiya, who died this week, was a great and versatile legal mind, a selfless builder of institutions and leaders who never claimed credit for himself.
He was the brain and head of the ANC constitutional committee which produced policy options that underpinned the present-day constitutional dispensation. He saw himself as a humble servant of the ANC, South Africa and the people.
Throughout his life, Skweyiya has wanted to inculcate revolutionary legal values and teach people to be selfless and versatile lawyers. At the height of apartheid, he was among the leaders who believed the Struggle had reached a turning point and the ANC needed conscientious lawyers like Nelson Mandela, OR Tambo and Duma Nokwe.
He also shared law books on Marxist legal theory and said he wanted me and other comrades to use law as a weapon of the Struggle.
Skweyiya saw the need to not only facilitate the formation of structures of progressive lawyers inside the country, but to orientate them to become providers of pro bono services to scores of youths charged with a variety of political offences during the 1985 and 1986 State of Emergency.
He was very concerned about the arrest and torture of these youths, and the parents who did not know where their children were being detained and tortured.
It was through his advice that I sought assistance from Dr Nthato Motlana and Beyers Naudé, the then secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, to establish a legal service centre within the Kara Heritage School to train the youth as paralegals who could provide assistance to peers in detention.
He was ahead of his time. He wanted to ensure the use of underground networks to involve law students in debates on the Freedom Charter and constitutional policies for a postapartheid South Africa, codenamed Pasa.
It was he who encouraged me, while I was a senior lecturer in criminal and procedural law at Unisa, to return to Mamelodi township in Tshwane to work among the youth to inculcate revolutionary values and involve them in community work.
He saw this as a way to ensure that we develop public-interest lawyers for Pasa.
It was also through Skweyiya that I and JB Sibanyoni, former MPS and others formed the Democratic Lawyers Congress (DLC).
He was the mastermind who guided the DLC, which came together to form the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) in 1987, with the late chief justice, Pius Langa, as president and the late minister of justice, Dullah Omar, and myself as deputy presidents.
It was aligned with revolutionary legal values which enabled it to deepen and entrench the human rights culture within the mass democratic movement in South Africa.
As we formed Nadel, we were urged to bring all lawyers, including the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), led by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, among others. The BLA later pulled out.
In 1987, Skweyiya asked Nadel and the BLA to send a delegation to Tanzania via Lusaka, to attend a conference themed “The World United against Apartheid”, where we successfully advanced the argument that apartheid was both an illegitimate and illegal regime.
Skweyiya could truthfully be portrayed as the father of public interest law in South Africa.
He encouraged us to replicate the Mamelodi Legal Services Centre and mobilised funding from Trócaire, a Catholic institution which enabled us to increase the number of legal services to 13 throughout the country with his advice.
We later brought these legal services centres together under the umbrella of the National Institute of Public Interest Law and Research (Nipilar), which I founded in Pretoria.
Skweyiya fitted perfectly well the versatile leader envisaged by the second president of the ANC, Sefako Mapogo Makgatho.
Also in 1987, he invited us to a conference on women and children under apartheid, convened at the instance of Tambo and Father Trevor Huddleston.
At the conference, I worked under Mama Albertina Sisulu and Sister Bernard Ncube to establish the National Children’s Rights Committee that informed President Nelson Mandela’s work on children’s rights.
Under his leadership, we worked with Uncle Bill Jardine to establish civic organisations which came together to form the South African National Civic Organisation.
Skweyiya was the last of the lawyers who were moulded into a versatile legal brain that embodied the aspirations of the people, as a weapon of the Struggle rather than as a means for selfaggrandisement.
He spoke passionately of the early lawyers who were among the founders of the ANC and the second generation of lawyers of the 1950s and 1960s who included the likes of Tambo, Mandela, and Nokwe.
All of these were versatile legal brains who involved themselves in all aspects of the struggle of the African people as Walter Sisulu called it.
Skweyiya was an embodiment of revolutionary values which these early lawyers espoused and lived by. He was adequate to any task assigned to him, including those of a solider, diplomat, researcher, builder of institutions and political educationist.
He was able to shift the paradigm from the group rights to the human rights ideology that underpinned the 1987 ANC statement on negotiations, which subsequently informed the ANC constitutional guidelines for a democratic South Africa, and the constitutional principles that shaped the 1993 and 1996 South African constitutions.
His mastery of underground work made it easier for the ANC to influence the establishment of civic organisations and children’s rights associations, as well as to infuse democratic values and principles in them.
Through the ANC constitutional committee that he chaired after the unbanning of political organisations in 1989, he ensured that the principles enshrined in the Freedom Charter and other documents, which amplified it, found their way into the 1996 constitution.
His sharp legal mind influenced the best progressive lawyers such as Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, Pius Langa and Dullah Omar, all of whom played a critical role in shaping the current constitutional dispensation.
He was inspired by and worked directly under Tambo, embodying the best revolutionary values of his predecessor.
Skweyiya dedicated his life to ensuring that these values underpinned the current constitutional dispensation.
The development of the public interest law movement as well as community justice institutions and the paralegal institutions owe their existence to this great legal mind.
In his memory, it would be important that these institutions are revitalised and strengthened to make justice accessible to the poor.
In his memory, progressive lawyers must rebuild the public interest law movement, community justice institutions and the paralegal movement to ensure that the poor have full access to justice.
Zola Skweyiya briefing the media on the social grants corruption investigation.