The ‘A-team’ lawyers representing South Africa at the world court against Israel

05 January 2024 - 08:55
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People inspect damage to their homes caused by Israeli air strikes on January 3 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. South Africa has instituted legal proceedings against Israel related to the war in Gaza. File photo.
People inspect damage to their homes caused by Israeli air strikes on January 3 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. South Africa has instituted legal proceedings against Israel related to the war in Gaza. File photo.
Image: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

South Africa has filed an application at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to institute proceedings against Israel . The application to the world court concerns alleged violations by Israel of its obligations under the Genocide Convention in relation to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The hearing is scheduled to be heard in The Hague next Thursday and Friday.  

Here are details about the lawyers who will represent South Africa and commentary from the legal fraternity regarding their credentials.

John Dugard SC

Dugard, a former professor of law at the University of Witwatersrand and director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, is one of South Africa’s top international law advocates locally and internationally.

Since 2001 he has served as special rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights on the Palestinian Territory and has been a member of the board of trustees of Law for Palestine since 2020. In a 2006 report on the situation in Palestine, he stated the standards of human rights in the territories had fallen to “intolerable new levels”.

He also has experience in the ICJ, where he served as an ad hoc judge in 2008 and visited the Palestine Centre in the US to give a lecture on apartheid and occupation under international law.

“I am a South African who lived through apartheid and I have no hesitation in saying Israel’s crimes are infinitely worse than the those committed by the apartheid regime,” he said in an interview in 2015.

John Dugard.
John Dugard.
Image: University of Pretoria

He is practising international law and international criminal law in the Netherlands.

Despite widely held respect for his ability within the legal fraternity, and being part of the negotiations that led to the drafting of South Africa's democratic constitution, Dugard has been snubbed for judicial positions at home. 

In 1994 he sat for an interview before the Judicial Service Commission for a Constitutional Court judge position but was not selected. The next year he was considered for the position of commissioner in the South Africa Human Rights Commission. Again, despite his experience and skills, the position was handed to someone else. Dugard was disregarded for the third time after being nominated by former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson for a seat on the ICJ. This was because the government failed to lodge his candidacy to the UN, which is central in lobbying support for the position.

Adila Hassim SC

Hassim, based at Thulamela Chambers, has been involved in socio-economic rights matters, including being lead counsel in the Life Esidimeni arbitration.

During the inquest into the deaths of mental health patients at Life Esidimeni, Hassim represented the law centre Section 27 and families of the deceased. She delivered an emotive opening statement during the inquiry in 2021 by reading out the names of the 44 families affected and the 144 mental health patients who died.

Adila Hassim.
Adila Hassim.
Image: Supplied

“The evidence will show that, notwithstanding the fact that the deceased presented with different medical conditions and required different medications or type of care, what they shared is that their deaths were caused by the sheer negligence, torture and abuse which they experienced,” she said in her opening statement.

Hassim’s preferred areas of practice include constitutional, administrative, health and competition law. She has been an acting judge and edited Health & Democracy: A Guide to Human Rights and Health Law and Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa, has published legal and health journals and became the co-founder and director of litigation at the civil rights organisation Section27.

Hassim, who was admitted to the Johannesburg Society of Advocates in 2003, is also the co-founder of the anti-corruption organisation Corruption Watch and serves on its board.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC

Ngcukaitobi gained public prominence during the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma and grew in popularity after forming part of the EFF’s legal team arguing in the Pretoria high court for former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s state capture report to be released, which was successful.

He again represented the EFF in 2017 in their bid in the Constitutional Court for the speaker of the National Assembly to implement Madonsela’s Nkandla report. Another successful case is when he represented the EFF in 2017, among other opposition parties, at the Constitutional Court in a joint bid by the United Democratic Movement to confirm the speaker of the National Assembly had the power to prescribe a secret ballot during motions of no confidence against Zuma.

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.
Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.
Image: Supplied

He also served as counsel to President Cyril Ramaphosa in a successful bid to overturn former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s report on alleged misconduct during Ramaphosa’s ANC presidential campaign.

Ngcukaitobi was behind the application brought before the Constitutional Court to find Zuma in contempt of court for failing to testify before the state capture inquiry. The advocate was successful and Zuma became the first former head of state in democratic South Africa to be imprisoned.

In 2023 he approached the Pretoria high court to represent 19 political parties in an application to declare load-shedding unconstitutional.

Ngcukaitobi is an experienced advocate at the Johannesburg bar, specialising in competition law, labour law, constitutional law and commercial law and gained silk status in 2020. He was appointed by Ramaphosa to be a member of the Judicial Service Commission in 2022 and was appointed as a member of the Competition Tribunal in 2023.

Max Du Plessis SC

Du Plessis is an advocate affiliated with the Thulamela Chambers, and for many years he was an associate fellow in international law at Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. He practises and specialises in public law, human rights, international law and competition law.

As an international lawyer, he advises international organisations, government and non-government organisations and has appeared or advised on matters which are before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, the SADC Tribunal and the East African Court of Justice.

Max Du Plessis.
Max Du Plessis.
Image: Oxford Human Rights Hub - University of Oxford

In October 2023 he represented the media before the Durban high court where he challenged the court’s ruling to ban the use of cellphones, laptops and video and audio recordings in the corruption trial of former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede.

He also represented the DA in May last year in securing a declaratory order from the Pretoria high court in an urgent application to request the court to confirm South Africa’s obligation to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin. This after the ICC issued a warrant of arrest for Putin, who was expected to attend the Brics Summit in Sandton last year, for the war in Ukraine.

The senior counsels will be joined at The Hague by three juniors who also have extensive experience in human rights law and international law.

Tshidiso Ramogale

Ramogale completed his pupillage under the mentorship of senior counsel on the team Ngcukaitobi. He also worked as a clerk for justice Sisi Khampepe of the Constitutional Court and was a legal officer at the SAHRC.

He headed to Harvard University to complete his Masters in law in 2017, an achievement which was highly celebrated on social media. While at Harvard, he was the managing executive editor of the Harvard Human Rights Journal and was appointed by the dean to serve on the task force on academic community and student engagement.

“Graduated. First in my family to graduate from university, first professional in my family and now the first to hold a master's degree. I may be the first but I certainly won’t be the last,” he said.

He is a human rights lawyer who obtained his law degree from the University of Witswatersrand and, according to Harvard, his work includes securing the release of people who were unlawfully arrested by police, prevented unlawful evictions and protected the rights of the elderly and disabled.  

He is also the founder of the non-profit organisation Change SA which aims to transform South Africa’s youth into social entrepreneurs.

Sarah Pudifin-Jones

Sarah Pudifin-Jones, a summa cum laude law graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was among the top law students at the university and completed her LLM and MPhil at Cambridge University.

She has been involved in high-profile matters before the Constitutional Court including joining Du Plessis in an application to order Zuma to comply with and implement the findings and remedial action in the public protector's report on Nkandla.

Sarah Pudifin-Jones.
Sarah Pudifin-Jones.
Image: Ubunye Chambers

She specialises in public law, constitutional law, administrative law and human rights at the Durban bar. Pudifin-Jones is the co-editor of the first book in South Africa law on class action litigation.

Pudifin-Jones is also a violinist and graced the stage when she was part of the backing violinists with US singer Josh Groban during his concert in April 2016.

Lerato Zikalala

Zikalala is a Rhodes University alumni where she obtained her LLB degree before completing her LLM at the University of Notre Dame, specialising in international human rights law. She focuses on general public and commercial law with interests in constitutional law and administrative and general public regulatory law.

Lerato Zikalala.
Lerato Zikalala.
Image: Advocates Group 621

Zikalala sits on the board of Lawyers against Abuse, an organisation that fills the gap between the law and the way it is experienced by victims of gender-based violence.

The legal team includes two external advocates who will support South Africa in its bid next week.

Vaughan Lowe KC

Lowe is a practising advocate at the Essex court chambers in the UK, specialising mainly in international law, with cases heard before the ICJ and the European Court of Justice and courts in England and Hong Kong, among many others. He has sat as an acting judge on the European Court of Human Rights and served as the nominated UK judge on the European Nuclear Energy Tribunal.

Vaughan Lowe.
Vaughan Lowe.
Image: Essex Court Chambers

He has extensively advised on international law matters and some of his major cases before the ICJ include the Antarctic whaling case. He represented Palestine for the Palestinian wall matter and in the Bolivia v Chile case relating to access to the Pacific Ocean.

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh KC

Words including “compelling”, “persuasive” and “tactically brilliant” are used by the UK legal fraternity to describe Ní Ghrálaigh, who is a senior advocate at the bars of Ireland, England and Wales. She is also on the ICC’s list of counsel and has extensive experience in human rights law, public international law, criminal law and public law.

Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh.
Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh.
Image: Matrix Chambers

Ní Ghrálaigh has won several awards and accolades including the International Law Junior of the Year award in the 2022-2023 Legal 500 Bar Awards. She received commendation as Barrister of the Year in the 2022 Lawyer Awards and was nominated for the Criminal Junior of the Year award in 2021 and 2022.

Her local cases include rights to freedom of expression and freedom to protest, discrimination and equality, international law, environmental law, national security, prisons and police.

Great team to represent SA, say analysts

International law experts are pleased with the team, saying the counsels representing South Africa are some of the best.

Wits University’s international law analyst Patrick Kadima viewed the legal team as an “A-team” with lawyers who have their own individual brilliance making the case more interesting.

Speaking to TimesLIVE, he said the team indicates government’s seriousness in taking on Israel at the ICJ.

“The senior counsel team is composed of brilliant lawyers, some of whom have worked on complex international law matters. For example, Prof Dugard is regarded by most of us as the father of international law in South Africa. He has contributed extensively to the field at home and abroad and I can boldly say his contribution is inestimable. His impact, both in the academy and in international organisations, speaks for itself,” he said.

Associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town Prof Cathleen Powell said the team consists of some of the best local and international expertise in international law.

“This includes some superb counsel. I may be omitting some of the best examples, but Ngcukaitobi and Du Plessis are obvious candidates for this description. I think South Africa has assembled an extremely strong team. I am not sure which of them is responsible for the application submitted to the ICJ, but that shows a thorough, comprehensive approach with detailed knowledge and understanding of the relevant rules. It’s an excellent start,” she said.

Kadima also pointed out Du Plessis for his wide contribution to international law matters, which he found to be a perfect fit for the ICJ challenge. The junior counsels also have impressive experience, he said.

“On the externals, one notices the two counsels hail from chambers in Britain who are known to be leaders in international law matters and human rights matters. Prof Lowe is known to be an authoritative voice in international law circles, having argued complex matters before the ICJ and widely published on these issues.

“All in all, I don’t think there could be a better team than this, given the importance of the case. The papers filed in the court speak to the brilliance of the team. Fantastic.” 


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