A tribute to Judge Thembile Skweyiya
By Sandiso Bazana
While growing up, my grandmother used to refer to me as “chief”, she thought I would study Law and become a magistrate. In those days, magistrates were highly regarded in our community. People would be asked to stand when the magistrate approached their ‘crown’ chair in court. They were hailed like Kings and Chiefs. Magistrates were highly acclaimed and regarded people in our traditional rural communities. Just like Chiefs and Kings, magistrates presided over the fate of ‘criminals’ and those accused of criminal acts. I suppose my grandmother wanted me to be hailed — presumably, the psychological spill over effect of that (to my family members) and especially her would have been satisfying, I imagine. I learnt about Judges later on in my life, and the respect and prestige ‘apportioned’ to them supersedes that of magistrates.
As a result, I grew up respecting magistrates and judges up to this day. This is why I’ve decided to scribble something, however brief about Judge Skweyiya, whom I personally met and had the chance of listening to.
Early morning (9 July, 2015), I heard on the news bulletin of SAFM that the Constitutional Court is looking for a judge to replace the retired Constitutional Court judge, Judge Thembile Skweyiya. What a shock! Even worse, the poor news reader couldn’t even pronounce his name properly. I was shocked because I never heard the news of Judge Skweyiya retiring. So when I got to my office this morning, I decided to Google the news reports on the retirement of Judge Skweyiya. I was shocked to learn that he retired in 2014.
The South African media has yet again picked and chosen the leaders that South Africans must learn about, and the name/s of leaders which South Africans must remember. I personally feel the SA media did not cover Judge Skweyiya’s retirement story widely enough compared to judges like Langa, Chaskalson, Sachs etc. This could be due to the fact that Judge Skweyiya lived a very private life, a life that is purported to be ‘judge like’. A life which made Skweyiya even more humble. During a special sitting in the Constitutional Court to honour Judge Skweyiya, the former Speaker of the National Assemble Mr Max Sisulu opined in 2014 that Skweyiya is ‘always soft spoken, thoughtful and humble” (6 May, 2014).
Judge Skweyiya’s career started after he graduated both BSoc and later LLB respectively in 1963 and 1967 at the then University of Natal now UKZN. In 1970 he became advocate of the Supreme Court of SA. 1974 he was appointed Advocate of the High Court in Lesotho. Received senior counsel status in 1989 (the status Dali Mpofu allegedly confided to Cyril Ramaphosa about during the Marikana commission).
Judge Skweyiya is the first African to receive the counsel status which was introduced in South Africa in 1970.
So it took approximately 19 years for the apartheid government to recognise the works of an African in the law fraternity. I wonder how long it takes today, considering that Dali Mpofu was found to be in ‘conflict of interest’ by allegedly asking Ramaphosa to ‘pull some strings’ for him to get the senior counsel status.
Nonetheless, Judge Skweyiya participated in the drafting of our ‘beloved’ constitution. I remember listening to him narrate a story at Hogsburg, Eastern Cape of how our constitution came about, to a group of students from the University of Fort Hare, Rhodes, and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2012, to which I was part. Judge Skweyiya was not only involved in the process of drafting the constitution, he took part in the research that was done prior the official draft constitution and final Constitution that was adopted and signed by former late president Mandela. The research included visiting different countries in the quest for a more human-centred and secular constitution.
He played an important role in the establishment of this democracy South Africa enjoys today, a constitution which boasts of very important section called the “Bill of Rights”—which many use as a harmless weapon to fight injustices in South Africa. He played an important role because he himself experienced the wrath of apartheid first hand. Judge Skweyiya began his legal career during the time when the South African courts were complicit, and served as a critical element in entrenching the ideology of apartheid. And in 1995 he was appointed Acting Judge of the High Court in Natal and Eastern Cape, a position he held till 2001. Hence, I argue he was involved in the establishment of our constitution right from the beginning—up—to its implementation.
Judge Skweyiya acted as judge of the Constitutional Court from 2001 to 2002 (May) and was officially appointed by former President Mbeki to permanent Constitutional Court judge in November 2003 till his retirement in march 2014.
Judge Skweyiya represented a lot of people during the apartheid days as an advocate even though law was not his first love. People like Mxenge, who initially advised him to study law whom Judge Skweyiya later defended, contributed to the decision he took to study law. Judge Skweyiya wanted to be a doctor, but the political activism in the University of Natal and Zululand made him change his mind. Mxenge is reported to have said to him; “Young man, do you’re LLB and then you can be a learned doctor.” (Mail and Guardian, 25 Aug 2014). Judge Skweyiya opines that, for a number of years, he remained convinced that time would allow him to pursue his first love (medicine) but it wasn’t to be.
He devoted his entire life to writing eloquently judgements which changed lives and put South Africa’s democracy in good standing with the world. Judge Skweyiya presided and wrote judgments pertaining to “rights of child ….housing and evictions” (Sisulu, 2014) etc. Judge Skweyiya saw it all.
With the recent attacks on the judiciary that have forced the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to sick a meeting with the leader of the executive, President Zuma, Judge Skweyiya’s humbleness, experience and wisdom will be missed. He was the last sitting judge from the crop of judges appointed to the constitutional court earlier on in our democracy, and his experience in dealing with the executive, public and political party criticism, which he dealt with diligently, professionally and with humbleness, will be missed dearly.
The ANC and SACP has attacked the judiciary for the judgments it has made that have in their view tended to disfavour the ruling ANC and its alliance partners. Speaking to the media, ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe and SACP’s General Secretary (cabinet member) have criticized the judiciary. Responding to such criticism, the court requires experienced judges, and in my view, Judge Skweyiya as the last ‘old’ judge provided that wisdom to the current crop of constitutional court judges. In fact, Chief Justice Mogoeng himself while bidding farewell to Judge Skweyiya in 2014 said; “he had been inspired by the outgoing judge to soldier on, knowing that just as they made it, so will we” (Mail and Guardian, 2014, August).
Judge Skweyiya till the end of his time as a judge kept the three pillars of our constitution which he referred to during his talk in Hogsback as the ‘cornerstones’ of our constitution namely; dignity, equality and freedom. He has left us with a responsibility to define the meaning of each ‘cornerstone’ and a challenge of ensuring the realisation of these pillars. For that I will always be grateful.
Thank you, Sir, for giving your time and knowledge to strengthening the understanding of the youth about the country, about the judiciary and where we come from as a people.
Thank you for agreeing to take part of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and University of Fort Hare’s Autumn School. I personally appreciate your role in the ongoing struggle for attainment of the pillars of our constitution (dignity, equality and freedom). Your significant role in the judicial system of the country will forever be recognised, not by the media, not by politicians but by those who seek to go beyond the images of so called ‘real-leaders’ as portrayed by the media.
Your life remained private as a judge, and you maintained humbleness throughout your career, and for that I salute your parents who taught you a fundamental trait of African intelligence, and that is humbleness.
I would like to wish you all the best in your future endeavours, I hear you have been appointed as an Inspecting Judge for the correctional service, I want to wish you all the best and ask you to continue your role in the development of African leaders as you have done in the FES Autumn school. Hope the realisation of the three pillars will remain key in your new position. With you, I feel the desire in me to do the best not necessarily in the profession my grandmother would have wanted me to be, but also in the academic space that I’m in, because dignity, equality and freedom are relevant in all spheres of our society.