A senior Pretoria advocate was asked to apologise for his stint in the Conservative Party and defence of apartheid era perpetrators as the Judicial Services Commission interviewed nominees for judges on Monday.
Advocate Hennie de Vos conceded during questioning that he served as chairperson of the Waterkloof branch of the far-right CP from 1982 to 1987, a time when he said ”the supposition still was that South Africa must be divided in areas where black, white and coloured are totally independent of each other”.
He denied the party believed that black people were inferior to whites, and said he left the National Party for the breakaway CP in what was a ”dispute between Afrikaners as a small group trying to talk politics among each other” about the merits of the National Party’s tri-cameral Parliament.
The CP took the view that ”mathematically” it would be impossible to give whites, coloured and Indians representation, but exclude the black majority, he said.
De Vos said he had not been involved in politics for the past 22 years and has for years taken in black law graduates as trainees because he believed it was the best way of transforming the judiciary. Many of the graduates were talented and taken silk, he said.
But advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, one of President Jacob Zuma’s new appointees to the JSC, said he had failed to explain his conversion from right-winger to a promoter of racial parity on the bench.
”You are not on trial, but in a sense people here would like to know people they are putting on the bench have the values of the Constitution at heart.
”I would be a happier person if you are ready to say: ‘I’m a person who was part of a bad past. I do not get that sense from you.”’
Ntsebeza put it to De Vos that he successfully defended former justice minister Magnus Malan when he was charged with murder over the 1987 KwaMakutha massacre. His failure to call Inkatha Freedom Party chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and others meant that it never emerged that the state was involved in covertly training IFP members as part of Operation Marion to ”liquidate” United Democratic Freedom party activists.
”Those people who were not called could have sent Malan to jail,” Ntsebeza said.
De Vos said he did his job and did it well, and that this did not include calling witnesses who would enable state prosecutors to prove their case. He added that, in addition, he only had information that his client chose to disclose.
The advocate conceded that during the liberation struggle he believed the African National Congress was preparing a full scale war and that the prospect ”scared” him.
He said however he had broken with the past and denied ever having been a racist, saying: ”I have always treated everybody on an equal basis.”
To this Advocate Muramo Moerane interjected: ”Some of your best friends are black?”
De Vos responded: ”I have a lot of black friends. I also have some white friends.”
Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane pointed out that De Vos’s past clients included Clive Derby-Lewis, who killed SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani.
He retorted that he had also defended Zuma, to which she responded: ”Pretty late, pretty late, after everybody had given up on apartheid.”
Inkatha Freedom Party chief whip, former CP colleague and the instructing attorney in the Malan case, Koos van der Merwe, came to De Vos’s defence, stating upfront that they were good friends.
”We had certain political ideals for Afrikaners which we agreed would not work. Our political past was a failure and we are now part of the new South Africa full time,” Van der Merwe said.
”He’s a model advocate in terms of transformation and I know it comes from his heart.”
The JSC is interviewing nominees for positions on the bench over three days. De Vos was one of two white nominees to be heard on Monday. The other was respected human rights lawyer Caroline Nicholls (52) who acted for the defence in the Delmas treason trial. She was asked by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe what motivated her to take on the plight of the politically oppressed before 1994.
”It was a sense of the injustice of apartheid,” she said.
Radebe last month delayed the hearings in an unprecedented step, pleading for more time for the sake of the transformation of the judiciary.
The interviews commenced days after Zuma’s presidential nominees to the JSC were appointed to the commission.
The hearings conclude on Tuesday. – Sapa