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.

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