Obituary: The people’s attorney, Judge Essa Moosa

There is one particular anecdote repeated by friends of the late Judge Essa Moosa. It takes place in a jail cell, packed with clergy and activists who had been detained by apartheid security forces for marching through the Streets of Cape Town. The year is 1989. Archbishop Desmond Tutu – who is said to share this anecdote more than most – turns to the officer in charge and says: “I want our lawyer.” Normally, this would necessitate a phone call. But, instead, a soft voice from the back of the cell floats over the excited hubbub: “I am also here.”

This was the modus operandi of Moosa, who passed away on Sunday after a brief fight with cancer. Known alternatively as the “struggle lawyer” or the “people’s attorney,” the former High Court judge spent many days in prison cells. In the first half of his six-decade career, this was as an unwilling guest of the apartheid regime, or to give legal assistance to its victims. In the second half of that career, it was to help give equal access to justice for people who otherwise did not have the wealth to get fair representation.

The story of this unobtrusive but hugely influential man is interwoven into that of the anti-apartheid struggle. A child of immigrants from India, he started his law degree at the University of Cape Town while working as a bookkeeper. At UCT, he refused to apply for a permit, a requirement for non-white students, and studied illegally. He then tried to take the government to court, when it kicked non-white people out of District Six, his home.

At this time, everything worked against the success of someone of Moosa’s skin colour. In an interview after he retired from the bench in 2011, he talked about asking for a salary when he qualified as a lawyer. “Mr Ephraim Kluk [the firm’s owner] jumped through the roof when I insisted on at least £10. ‘I don’t even know how my white clients will respond to you. Do you think this is a coolie market!?’”

Blocked thanks to his race, Moosa then started his own firm, with financial backing from his sister Fatima. The phone number of E Moosa and Associates was learnt off by heart by activists in the Western Cape, who would call it for assistance when the regime stamped down. Talking at Moosa’s retirement party in 2011, journalist Zubeida Jaffer said he came to her rescue when she was held in detention by security police after she smuggled a note, on a sheet of toilet paper, to the then lawyer. Like others that he came into contact with, the judge had a profound impact on Jaffer; “He has sown the seeds in all of us. We have the responsibility to keep that ethos alive.”

Moosa, who passed away a few weeks after his 81st birthday, soon got involved in the wider political struggle. His role in forming and sustaining the United Democratic Front – then the only serious internal opposition to the regime – meant he would go on to help negotiate the release of Nelson Mandela and a transition to democracy.

He also played an instrumental role in starting the National Association of Democratic Lawyers. But he did this with little pomp. Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, also a founding member, says he didn’t notice Moosa at first. “I didn’t notice him because Dullah [Omar] was larger than life.” The sentiment is repeated by others who talk with fondness about the judge. Ntsebeza says: “He had a quiet demeanour. You could almost miss him.” In a world where eloquent speeches and assertive opposition to the regime was the norm, Moosa was very different. “He wasn’t a fire-eater like the rest of us.”

But, despite his lack of self-aggrandisement, the lawyer was appointed a judge of the High Court by then president Mandela. This made him the first non-advocate to be given the a judicial position. Nearly two decades followed, with a career that ended in adjudicating the leadership dispute between Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa over who should lead the Congress of the People (Cope).

In an interview, Moosa said of this case: “I told the leaders of the two factions of Cope that I was throwing them a life jacket and that they could swim with that or drown. My advice was not taken to heart.”

He then turned his attention to a struggle further away, for the freedom of Kurdish people stuck without a state, between Syria, Iraq and Turkey. This saw him take up the role of voluntary chairperson of the locally-based Kurdish Human Rights Action Group. Ntsebeza says: “This was the measure of the man. No fanfare. He just went and looked after the rights of the marginalised and downtrodden.”  

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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