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We gave black lawyers opportunities during apartheid and they became judges, says high court judge hopeful

Advocate Jacobus Johannes Strijdom SC on Wednesday said working alongside and training black lawyers during apartheid paved the way for them to become judges in today's courts.
Advocate Jacobus Johannes Strijdom SC on Wednesday said working alongside and training black lawyers during apartheid paved the way for them to become judges in today's courts.
Image: Screengrab

Opportunities and training that white senior lawyers gave to black lawyers during the height of apartheid paved the way for some of those black legal minds to become judges today. 

This was the message of advocate Jacobus Johannes Strijdom SC who served as a prosecutor and an acting magistrate during apartheid. He was being interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) on Wednesday, where he hoped to be recommended for a position as a Gauteng high court division judge. 

The seasoned lawyer, who has more than 27 years of experience, was earlier grilled about his role in transforming the judiciary, a question he was asked during a previous interview process before the judiciary in 2018.

Strijdom told the commission that in hindsight, he could have offered a more powerful answer when asked that question previously. He said even during the height of apartheid, he worked alongside and trained black lawyers, some of whom were now judges.

Strijdom took it further, mentioning that among the people he had worked with and helped in advancing were outgoing chief  justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and North West judge president Monica Leeuw.

“Some of those people are now judges. I worked with judge president Leeuw and chief justice Mogoeng when he was also a prosecutor. I also trained one of the judges who is in the Supreme Court. That was in 1986 when there were [few] black prosecutors and magistrates appointed in the republic,” said Strijdom.

“After '94, the people we trained became judges and had the opportunity, during that period, to get proper experience and be trained.

“I feel in that respect that I made a contribution for transformation on the bench.”

Even as an acting judge over the past few years, Strijdom said, he often assisted black junior judges when they approached him for advice, particularly in criminal matters in which he was seasoned.

But EFF leader and MP Julius Malema, who is a commissioner in the proceedings, pressed him on this, saying there was actually no transformation that happened in 1986 and Strijdom training or working alongside Mogoeng was not equivalent to transformation.

There was no transformation at that stage – but at least we gave black people the opportunity, so when transformation came into play they were already trained and experienced to be appointed as judges.
Advocate JJ Strijdom 

Strijdom replied: “There was no transformation at that stage — but at least we gave black people the opportunity at that stage, so when transformation came into play they were already trained and experienced to be appointed as judges.”

Leeuw, however, contested Strijdom's version of events, saying she was never trained by him. 

“I did not train them, they worked together with me. They were also prosecutors,” Strijdom clarified. 

A question posed by commissioner Dali Mpofu SC on whether they were training the prosecutors and lawyers to be instruments for the apartheid government threw Strijdom off course. 

Malema pressed on, saying the training was not being done to advance an envisaged democratic SA and the purpose was not for them to help democracy.

“No, the experience they gained helped them in a democratic SA,” said Strijdom. 

His interview did not get any easier. He was quizzed about concessions he had made about his role in prosecuting black people during apartheid.

Commissioner China Dodovu said in 2018 when Strijdom appeared before the same commission, he made concessions that having worked 20 years as a prosecutor and magistrate, a lot of wrong things happened such as children as young as 14 being detained for public violence. During that interview, Strijdom had told the commission that his role had been to implement the law, not challenge or change it.

“What personal changes have you gone through since then?” Dodovu asked Strijdom.

“I am a transformed person, especially when you look at our constitution, where you look at equality and humanity. Most of the laws from those days were inhumane. I regret that I was part of the system at that stage. Unfortunately, I was a prosecutor, I had to do my job and be loyal to the law ... but I can also say that in a lot of those public violence cases, at the end of the day, not many of them went to trial. Most of them were withdrawn.

“Once I started to practise on my own, I started to defend those people from the townships in public violence cases,” he said, adding that he had never had the chance to make a public apology to those who had suffered because of his action.

“Since practising as an advocate and having a more objective view of the past, I realise that I’ve got regret,” he said.

“But you are not ready to apologise?” Dodovu asked him.

“I  can do that with no hesitation and say I apologise for what we have done in the past,” Strijdom responded.

I apologise that I was part of the apartheid system, that I was part of the apartheid laws and that we applied those laws and I was one of the instruments to apply that law.
Advocate JJ Strijdom

Malema pressed for the apology and Strijdom obliged.

“I apologise that I was part of the apartheid system, that I was part of the apartheid laws and that we applied those laws and I was one of the instruments to apply that law. I apologise to those people,” he said.

Strijdom is one of 17 candidates being interviewed for 10 available positions in the Gauteng high court.

Acting chief justice Raymond Zondo expressed his concern at recommending Strijdom for the post at age 66, saying some judges chose to retire at the age in which he was hoping to start a permanent judge position. He questioned why they should give an opportunity to a white male advocate who was seemingly not as experienced in all aspects of the law.

Strijdom had told the commission that 80% of his career had been around criminal law, with about 20% being on contracts and matrimonial law. He was not experienced in tax law, labour law and the like.

But Strijdom said in his acting judge stints, which he has held since 2013, he had been exposed to civil law and was therefore comfortable in handling it. On his age, he told the commission that he intended to work until he was 75 — adding that he was healthy.

Strijdom was the second candidate of the day to be interviewed after another hot-and-cold interview of advocate Jabulani Nyathi.

During his interview, Nyathi received praise from Supreme Court of Appeal judge president Mandisa Maya who said: “I have read the  judgments attached to your questionnaire and I have to say I saw great potential there and you write well.”

But another commissioner was not  convinced.

“You are all over ... When it comes to your judgment-writing skills, I think you need to work on them,” said Leeuw.

Taking the criticism graciously, Nyathi replied: “Your comments are received with gratitude,” adding that he would look into it.

Advocate Mvuzo Notyesi SC picked up on the discrepancies and asked Nyathi whether there was a set structure of judgment writing or whether each judge could adopt their own writing style.

“The JP [judge president] commended your judgment, said she read and understood your judgment. I read it too ... Is there anything you regret on the judgments you have written?” asked Notyesi.

“No, councillor. I have no regrets but there is always space to learn and improve,” Nyathi replied.

Malema agreed with Notyesi, asking whether it wasn’t typical for there to be a difference in writing styles. Nyathi agreed.

Commending him further, Maya said it took just days for Nyathi to compile the judgment, saying it was well presented even though he may have not had “the time to design a beautifully written judgment”.

The interviews continue.

TimesLIVE


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