The Faculty of Law (UP Law) at the University of Pretoria (UP) was honoured to host Emeritus Deputy Chief Justice (DCJ) of the Constitutional Court of South Africa Dikgang Moseneke for a discussion on his latest book, All Rise – A Judicial Memoir. The event was live-streamed on 7 October 2020 from the studios of UP’s Future Africa Campus and featured an interactive discussion between DCJ Moseneke, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, Professor Tawana Kupe, and a UP Law panel consisting of Dean Professor Elsabe Schoeman, Deputy Dean Professor Charles Maimela and Dr Joel Modiri, Acting Head of the Department of Jurisprudence. The event attracted significant participation from a virtual audience during and after the recording – certainly a highlight on the 2020 UP Law calendar!
Modiri, who acted as moderator of the event, probed Moseneke as author and former DCJ on a number of topics emerging from his latest best-selling non-fictional book, following on his 2016 first best-seller, My Own Liberator – A Memoir. In just over 60 minutes, the discussion traced DCJ Moseneke’s extraordinary career as a servant of the people; a campaigner for justice; an intellectual and writer; a constitutional lawyer; a Robben Island political prisoner; a businessman; an enemy of racism and inequality; and a humanitarian with a deep love for education. While the book is undoubtedly important for its exposition of the legal career of DCJ Moseneke and its narration of South African political history and constitutional development, it is also elegantly and thoughtfully written – serving as a testament to Moseneke’s status as a legal giant in South Africa.
In the exchange between Moseneke and Modiri, key moments from the book were extensively debated. These included the young Moseneke’s entry into youth politics, joining the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) to his 1963 prosecution for conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid regime which resulted in a 10-year prison sentence on Robben Island. Moseneke’s political experiences as a youth then led him into law practice which in turn anticipated his post-1994 entry into the judiciary as a High Court judge and then a Justice of the Constitutional Court.
Remarking on these beginnings, Moseneke reflected specifically on his upbringing in Atteridgeville in Tshwane, which he described as “the epicenter of Africanist thinking and remains so in many significant ways and automatically lead to jurisprudential thinking”. He continued to say that “Our history converted the Pan Africanist Congress into some spectre, horrible spectre, that ought to be hated and avoided, and yet, in My Own Liberator, I explain the fundamentals of Africanist thinking.
”Of course, first is to overthrow white domination and colonialism, which were quite uncomplicated, as these were the obvious sources of oppression. Next, setting up collectively with others to overthrow it. So, overturning and overthrowing was such an obvious call that you do, leading to fundamental change and resulting in the rearrangement of power relations in society. Its target is always fundamental in order to be able to achieve a just, open, non-racial, inclusive society.”
The discussion then turned to the hotly debated status of the 1996 Constitution. In All Rise, Moseneke described a shift from the early optimism of the early 1990s and its later erosion in the wake of the political and economic malaise now confronting post-1994 South Africa. Moseneke responded with an impassioned defence of the promise and potential of the post-1994 constitutional project:
”The debate we will have and I hope we will have over time is, ‘What did we do with that transition?’ If the debate is a complete revolution, of course it is easy – a complete revolution you march with your guns over your shoulders and you whistle on your way and then you establish a government from ground zero. That is one scenario. Our scenario was not like that for many reasons. So, for me, the important thing that changed my newer decisions was we have what potentially could be a valid democratic arrangement, provided those who inherit power do the right things. And the decision I took, and in the book I tell you how I was hounded out to become a judge, and ultimately I agreed that I would become a judge, and I characterise the constitutional transition in a particular way, and I think in my view it is substantive and some of the many things that Africanist thinkers on the continent want, could and can be achieved provided there is enough work that is being done around that.
“I want to stop there. I mean there are many issues we can talk about. But I dream of a time, as I am saying in the book, when every young man and woman in this land, and every young man and woman in Africa, you have seen that in my dedication, will know when they are oppressed, will know when they are excluded, and they will not tolerate that, and that they would rise. Somewhere in the book, this or the other one, I have complained about being invited to fight two revolutions in one lifetime. I was complaining is it fair to go to war against systems twice in one lifetime? So, in short, I do think once we have established it, the potentially democratic arrangement in the country, we could have reversed the consequences of colonial oppression, exclusion and economic exploitation. Provided we set up a competent state. And I thought we could protect that process by having an effective judiciary that is true to the broader aims and objectives of that we set out in the Constitution.”
All Rise pulls no punches as Moseneke openly calls for a recognition of the common law as a colonial imposition. This prompted the Dean, Deputy Dean and the VC to offer their own reflection on progress made by UP and UP Law to transform the curriculum and engage in interdisciplinary thinking to resolve the challenges of our society, continent and world.
At conclusion, it was Moseneke’s reflection on his experience as arbitrator in the Life Esidimeni tragedy that provided the most moving ending to the discussion.
To experience the rich and erudite conversation, we invite everyone to view the full recording of the discussion on YouTube.
UP VC and Principal Prof Kupe concluded the event by thanking Moseneke for honouring UP with his attendance and for his phenomenal contribution to the South African judicial system. Prof Schoeman concluded by thanking Moseneke for his valuable insights and also above all, for the humanity he displayed that afternoon. She further extended an open invitation to him to come by the Faculty of Law any time he wishes.
On 7 December 2018, UP awarded an honorary doctorate through its Centre for Human Rights in UP Law to Moseneke. This event, during which degrees were awarded also to students in human rights, commemorated a century since the birth of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.