'We have a long way to go': top judge bemoans inequality 25 years into democracy

04 February 2020 - 07:00 By PHIILANI NOMBEMBE
Western Cape high court judge Siraj Desai said more than 20 years into democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Western Cape high court judge Siraj Desai said more than 20 years into democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

One of SA’s most senior judges has lamented the wealth disparity that persists in the country more than 25 years after democracy.

Western Cape high court judge Siraj Desai addressed a cocktail function hosted by the Black Lawyers' Association (BLA) to welcome members of the National Bar Association (NBA), one of the largest bars for African-American lawyers and judges in the US, at the District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town on Sunday.

The NBA will host the Cape Town leg of its judicial council midwinter meeting and conference on Thursday.  

Welcoming his American counterparts, Desai said SA had achieved a lot since 1994, but he noted that inequality continued.

Judge Siraj Desai welcoming his US counterparts at the District Six Homecoming Centre on Sunday.
Judge Siraj Desai welcoming his US counterparts at the District Six Homecoming Centre on Sunday.
Image: Supplied

“The incontrovertible fact is that after 20 years of democracy, we are today one of the most unequal societies in the world,” said Desai.

“If I may plead with you not simply to see Cape Point, Cape Agulhas and the Winelands, I would say, see our cultures through the townships, and to see the poverty of our people.

“We have a long way to go, although we have an advanced legal order in this country. We have probably one of the progressive constitutions in this world. It’s an advanced country in that sense of the law.”

Desai said the interaction between SA and America’s legal practitioners was crucial for the profession.

“We debated with the people of the world how we could end apartheid. We need to debate with you and the people of the world how we can create a better society both here and elsewhere.”

The NBA’s judge Shaun Graves-Robertson said there were a number of similarities between the South African and the US legal systems. He said the US also grappled with drugs and women abuse, for example.

“We really don’t have words to talk about how joyous, how special this occasion is,” said Graves-Robertson.

“It is our hope this is the first of many meetings to come between the American judges and lawyers and lawyers and judges of SA. The systems, although they are different, you can see similarities and even greater than the systems, the issues. We are going to be talking about the abuse of women, we are going to be talking about drug abuse. We talked about intellectual property when we were in Johannesburg, we talked about the civil system and the criminal system and how they differ. We are looking for joint solutions. This is  not a conference where people come and say we have the best solutions for you. We say ‘let us sit down and reason together’.”

Black Lawyers Forum deputy president Bayethe Maswazi speaking at the District Six Homecoming Centre on Sunday.
Black Lawyers Forum deputy president Bayethe Maswazi speaking at the District Six Homecoming Centre on Sunday.
Image: Supplied

BLA deputy president Bayethe Maswazi said the legal profession still mirrored the apartheid system. Maswazi said briefing patterns still favoured white male lawyers, and  black lawyers were leaving the profession in droves.

“The system remains oppressive,” said Maswazi.

“I have been saying this and I still continue to say that we have done very well in terms of changing the appearance of the judiciary. When we want to feel good, we say in 1994 we had two black judges. In 2020 we have so many. In 1994 we had no female black judge, in 2020 we have so many.

“But there is no change in the quality of ideas that underpin the law, that is jurisprudence.”

Maswazi said BLA is engaging justice minister Ronald Lamola over the issue, but added: “We are not too optimistic.”

“He is very much open to ideas that come from the progressive forces in the profession. We don’t want to be too hopeful because we were disappointed before, by people we trusted.

“Right here in the Western Cape, for the first time in the history of SA, we saw our brothers and sisters closing their practices to protest in the streets.

“Almost every day we receive a report of an advocate or an attorney falling off the profession. They are getting struck off the roll because they cannot afford to continue with their practice because of how cruel our environment has become.”


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