Dr Skweyiya was a humble public servant and a legal giant
Dr Zola Skweyiya was a humble servant of the people and a legal giant
DR ZOLA Skweyiya, who passed away 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 leader of the ANC constitutional committee which produced the policy options that underpinned the present day constitutional dispensation. He saw himself as a humble servant of the ANC, South Africa and its people.
Throughout his life, Dr 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, 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.
Dr Skweyiya saw the need to not only facilitate the formation of structures of progressive lawyers inside the country, but 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 detained and tortured.
It was through his advice that I sought assistance from Dr Nthato Motlana and Dr Beyers Naude, the then secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, to establish a legal service centre within the Kara school to train the youth as paralegals who could assist their peers in detention.
He was ahead of his times. He wanted to ensure the use of underground networks to involve law students in debates on the Freedom Charter and constitutional policies for a post-apartheid South Africa, code-named Pasa.
It was he who encouraged me, while I was a senior lecturer in criminal and procedural law at the University Of South Africa, to return to Mamelodi township in Tshwane to work among the youth to inoculate 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 Dr Skweyiya that I and JB Sibanyoni, former MPs and others formed the Democratic Lawyers Congress (DLC).
He was the mastermind who guided the DLC that 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, Dulla 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.
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, Dr Skweyiya asked Nadel and the BLA to send a delegation to Tanzania via Lusaka, to attend a conference, “The World United against Apartheid”, where we successfully advanced the argument that apartheid was both an illegitimate and illegal regime.
Dr Skweyiya could be truthfully 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 Trocaire, 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 centres together under the umbrella of the National Institute of Public Interest Law and Research, which I founded in Pretoria.
Dr 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 insistence 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 Jardin to establish civic organisations which came together to form the South African National Civic Organisation.
Dr Skweyiya was the last of the layers who were moulded into a versatile legal brain that embodies the aspirations of the people as a weapon of the Struggle rather than a means for self-aggrandisement.
Skweyiya was an embodiment of revolutionary values, adequate to any tasks 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 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 and children’s rights organisations, and 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 found their way into the 1996 constitution.
His sharp legal mind infiltrated and 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, who embodies the best revolutionary values of his predecessor.
In his memory, progressive lawyers must rebuild the public interest law movement, community justice institutions and the paralegal movement to ensure the poorest of the poor access justice to the full.
INCORRUPTIBLE: Zola Skweyiya briefs the media on the social grants corruption investigation.