Moseneke still a man on a mission
Producing ‘quality outcomes’ is one of the reasons the retired judge is so well respected, writes KEVIN RITCHIE
DIKGANG Moseneke is in fine spirits. He has every right to be. Nominally retired from South Africa’s highest court, he’s just written a beautiful memoir that is simultaneously poignant and enthralling. My Own Liberator charts a life from Pretoria’s version of Sophiatown, Lady Selborne, to Atteridgeville, Robben Island as South Africa’s youngest political prisoner, lawyer, silk and finally after becoming acclaimed one of our most revered jurists ever, back to the TV room of the family home in Waterkloof.
Dapper, even in a pair of jeans and open necked shirt rather than the green robes of the Constitutional Court, Moseneke has the air of a man on a mission, rather than a pensioner pottering in his rose garden.
He’s turned down more speaking engagements than he cares to remember, but even so he has the Unisa Founders’ day address in a fortnight’s time where in typical style he’ll grapple with the issue of university fees as seen in terms of section 29 of the constitution, which guarantees access to education.
Next he presents the next Helen Suzman memorial lecture, followed by a stint at the London School of Economics in January as an occasional lecturer and then he’s off to New York University as a visiting professor next April to teach the semester.
He’s also an honorary professor at Wits Medical School, where he lectures on bioethics, but he wants to head down to Cape Town to teach at the UCT Summer School with Judge Dennis Davis. He’d also like to teach at Fort Hare and Turfloop, too. “I’d like to do some inspirational speaking and contextualise the law and its importance for the students there.”
The one thing he doesn’t want to do is to get on the public speaking circuit, even though it is highly lucrative. By the time he returns from New York, his next book should be out. It will be the second volume of his memoirs, focusing on his time as a Constitutional Court judge and ultimately deputy chief justice.
“I have stories to tell,” he says. “I would like to tell the fascinating stories about coming to court and learning from the best like (inaugural chief justice) Ismail Mahomed, Arthur Chaskalson, Johann Kriegler, Albie Sachs and all the others.”
In typical Moseneke fashion, he won’t shy away from the controversies either, like being overlooked for the position of chief justice – not once but three times – by President Jacob Zuma, but also of the real and profound friendship which evolved between Moseneke and his last boss, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Being overlooked was a boon for Moseneke, he says. “It increased my intensity to be a good judge, to focus on the job and get it done quite well and teach and train new judges.”
The work he did there and at law schools, including the papers he delivered at home and abroad, will form the basis of a third, more scholarly, volume.
The second volume of his memoirs underscores his desire to inculcate a sense of calling and of the enormity of the responsibility of accepting a position on the bench for new judges – something that he shied away from until he was in his mid fifties and finally felt mature and settled enough for the job.
Sir James Rose Innes, South Africa’s chief justice from 1914 to 1927, is the only other senior judge to have written a book which explains what it is like to sit on the bench in judgment of your fellows.
Moseneke’s memoir will be a muchneeded and timely addition.
His first volume, My Own Liberator, has set a high benchmark. Written over four years, it is dedicated to his wife and family.
“I might look very social and relaxed, but this place was a den of activity, of writing, of being a recluse,” he remembers.
“The challenge was to be anecdotal, to tell the story, not to be too clever. We judges are the voice from the mountain, we hold the tablets so we tend to bellow, so this was about searching for humility, the little boy growing up seeing people come back from the war, all those memories, a grandfather who rises from nothing to become head chef, the forced removals, everything.”
It was a bid, he says, to also explain his concept of African humanism, as espoused by Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, and because of this belief, his sentence of 10 years on Robben Island at the age of 15 – the youngest political prisoner. This in turn fed into the concept of being, as the book says, your own liberator.
“It’s like a little ditty that doesn’t go out of your head, you want to sing it every second. I can’t outsource my duty to sit up and read volumes and volumes, I am the judge I must produce quality outcomes.
“‘You, my boy, have to clean your own shoes, you have to wake up like your grandfather at 2am and stoke the boiler.’ That responsibility stays with me. If you want things to happen, if you want freedom, if you want dignity, if you want a good government you can’t sleep on the job.
“You are your own liberator, it taught me about the two tramlines of personal agency and collective agency and we tend in society to take the shorter route of relying on collective agency: the government must do, the bosses must do, and we rarely point our children, as my forebears happily did. They must skill themselves.
“I needed to write that and let it come through and remind our young people ‘yes there are things we can demand but there are other things we must do, we must pick up our litter, we must clean where we live’, that’s how we are going to get ourselves liberated in the broader sense of the word.
“The notion that political liberation as the only one is a false one.”
My Own Liberator
by Dikgang Moseneke, published by Picador Africa at a recommended price of R299.
See an extract from the book in tomorrow’s Weekend Argus Sunday