/ 16 October 2023

In integrity there is justice

Ministers Elaborates On The Implementation Of Covid 19 Disaster Management Regulations
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola. (Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius)

As the world grapples with the assertion of the rule of law, from Israeli-Palestine to the conflict in Ukraine, now more than we ever we need to see people with integrity and intellectual rigour being at the forefront of the struggle for human rights triumph against the indignations of injustice — to borrow an idea from Che Guevara.

The ANC was founded by people of this calibre. Among them was Duma Nokwe. I had the pleasure of delivering a keynote address at the 20th Anniversary of the Duma Nokwe Group of Advocates. This is an extract of my address.

Cause to honour Advocate Duma Nokwe is aptly captured by the preamble to the Constitution.

“We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live there, united in our diversity.

We, therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic to 

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

Today, we stand on the shoulders of a pioneer of Black legal brilliance, a remarkable stalwart of our liberation struggle, Advocate. Philemon Pearce Dumisile Nokwe.  

From what we know, Advocate Duma Nokwe carried himself out in his personal, political, and professional life as an ethical and humble but legally and politically incisive character, which many struggle to develop even in this profession and day and age. There is no doubt that his legacy envelopes all of us.

Many have sought to define him around his humble beginnings in Evaton and later his struggle as he sought to pierce the then legal prohibitive veil of the advocate’s profession, which was never easy. 

Following in the footsteps of heroes like Sol Plaatje and Richard W Msimang-who were barristers in the early 1900s, Adv. Duma Nokwe was a fierce, yet intellectually to highlight the 1913 land grab legislation, and he was unrelenting in his intellectual synthesis of the best of Marxists and African nationalism to develop a unique brand of revolutionary intellectualism to confront the vicissitudes of his era, and ultimately of our educational, legal and political struggles.

In his letter addressed to the secretary-general of the UN in February 1964, then as the secretary-general of my party, the ANC, Advocate Duma Nokwe confronted what was the apartheid regime’s “defiant and contemptuous” attitude towards the international conventions and the UN’s resolution declaring apartheid as a crime against humanity.  

He said: “The time for punitive action against the delinquency of the South African Government is overdue.” 

When, at the time, it was not popular to do so, Nokwe relied on international legalism to call for the expulsion of South Africa from the UN. It indeed happened as South Africa was expelled. That, chairperson, is what I call victory over evil. 

In his address to the Johannesburg Bar on 15 October 2011, former president Thabo Mbeki, who knew and worked with him, specifically characterised Nokwe was “of high-quality leadership” and also “an outstanding intellectual and a brilliant mind, who surrendered his rare abilities to the national cause”, which, at the time, was a challenging period in our struggle for liberation. 

Nokwe thus faced personal, legal and professional challenges besides confronting the political incongruencies of the time. 

On 8 August 1956, he was refused permission by the then Natives Commissioner, Assembly, to occupy the council’s chamber at His Majesty’s Building in Johannesburg, because of the Group Areas Act. 

He was told then to find accommodation in the native reserve of a township, away from the rest of his white colleagues. The representation of the then chairman of the Bar Council at the time, Advocate Issy Maisels QC, was met with threats and labelling. 

I am advised, Advocate Patric Mtshaulana SC, at the same occasion attended by Mbeki, had this to say about Nokwe: 

His application for admission was moved by Advocate Joe Slovo … Nokwe signed the admission book and became a member of [the Johannesburg] Society [of Advocates] on 9 March 1956. He was to become the first black member to be admitted to the Bar in the Transvaal (of that time).” 

Mtshaulana proceeded to state:

“…We are honouring Nokwe to pay tribute to his service to the country, to his courage and to the sacrifice he made so that we can have a Constitution guaranteeing all the rights and freedoms he did not live to enjoy.” 

I stand here today as the minister of justice and correctional services. In my official role, I process recommendations to the president on various honours and prerogatives, including granting such honours as the status of senior counsel. 

I’m happy to hear that the Duma Nokwe group of Advocates want to submit Nokwe posthumously for the position of senior counsel. I believe this proposal is in line with the preamble of the Constitution to Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land — respect those who have worked to build and develop our country.

No moral or legal proscription prevents us from seeking a Silks status for Nokwe posthumously. He sure by now would have deserved it much more than any of us here. 

It is a great honour that this group is named after a distinguished legal and political giant. The constitutional court makes a point about the honour of historic names in the case of City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality v Afriforum and Another. 

“The underlying reason for this irrational differentiation was that African people, particularly black people, were intellectually inferior, lazy and lesser beings in every respect of consequence. As a result, there hardly was any city, town, street or institution of note that bore a name that sought to honour black people’s leaders or recognition of their institutions or treasured history.

 Everything about the oppressed was dismissively branded as backward and inconsequential. Virtually all recognition and honour were thus respectively given to and bestowed upon white history and their heroes and heroines. The system was about entrenching white supremacy and privilege and black inferiority and disadvantage.”

In that same judgment, the court says that “The normalised demonisation and stigmatisation of heroes and heroines of our struggle for justice, peace and freedom is now a thing of the past. We, the people of South Africa, promise to honour them, presumably in the same way heroes and heroines have been revered in this country and worldwide.”

Duma Nokwe Group of Advocates epitomise precisely the court exposition in this judgment. The story of Duma Nokwe is well documented. We have started the consultative process on the repatriation of Nokwe and other fallen comrades.

In the past 20 years, you have kept Duma alive in our hearts and minds and been at the heart of the nation and the legal profession’s transformation. 

Whilst we continue to harvest the dividends of our democracy, we know full well that a lot still has to be done. Still, we dare not fall into the trap of portraying our democracy and Constitution as consequential developments. 

Equally, we all must take on the task of reconfiguring and reconstructing South Africa diligently and faithfully.  

We must ensure that we do everything in our control to build on the achievements and leadership of Nokwe.

I first came across Nokwe’s sharp pen and intellectualism when, as the leader of the ANCYL, we were at a crossroads with the ANC mother body on what is called the autonomy of the ANCYL; he wrote as the secretary-general of the ANC that autonomy means the following Nokwe remarked, the fundamental objects of the youth movements must necessarily be the same as the real purpose of the congresses.

This cannot be otherwise since the youth suffer the same oppression as the people of South Africa. However, because of the youth’s peculiar characteristics, needs and interests, the youth movement must be more than just junior congresses. This remains the authority on this topic, which continues to define the dynamic political relationship between the ANC and the ANCYL.

This quote remains the authority on the political autonomy of the Youth League to this day. 

The likes of Nokwe understood that the political arena cannot be left to its own devices; it’s a space in which the intelligentsia must be interested in participating to move society forward.

Duma Nokwe Group of Advocates, I wish you well and congratulate you on your 20th anniversary.

We need to remember, at this moment more than ever, that for a century black lawyers, no matter how disenfranchised they were, strove to put constitutionalism at the centre of the struggle for democracy.

As Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi wrote in his seminal book Land Matters, referring to among others Alfred Mangena and Richard Msimang, “their intellectual heritage has often been doubted. Yet by recalling the African origins of constitutionalism, we can make sense of its promise. It can, perhaps, once again play its redemptive role- helping us navigate the treacherous terrain of our present, uncertain times.”

So, too, a time not so long ago when the rest of the world looked to us and the moral authority we held when grappling with reconciliation, retribution and ultimately peace. 

We need to return to that place both at home and in the eyes of the world. This is most true now at a time where the global community is being suffocated by right wing agendas who do not hesitate to dismantle the rule of law in pursuit of a world that has no regard for equality, diversity and inclusivity.

The legacy and sacrifice of home-grown intellectuals like Duma Nokwe demands as much.

Ronald Lamola is the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services of South Africa