Maverick Citizen

HUMAN RIGHTS AWARD

Legislature must work to ‘take back our state’, urges justice Yvonne Mokgoro as she is honoured in name of George Bizos

Legislature must work to ‘take back our state’, urges justice Yvonne Mokgoro as she is honoured in name of George Bizos
From left: Legal Resources Centre chairperson Thandi Orleyn, LRC national director Nersan Govender, George Bizos Human Rights Award recipient Yvonne Mokgoro and George Bizos's sons, Alexi and Damon. (Photo: Sathia Pather)

‘I’m honoured to have my name associated with George Bizos, a man who oozes humility,’ former Constitutional Court justice Yvonne Mokgoro said as she received the George Bizos Human Rights Award.

Graceful, committed, meticulous, Ubuntu. These were the words speakers used to describe Mokgoro’s illustrious career.

Legal Resources Centre (LRC) national director Nersan Govender said Mokgoro truly epitomised the spirit in which the award was founded: “Today we pay homage to an outstanding individual who, like George Bizos, is unwavering in her dedication to social justice work and the steadfast advancement of human rights in South Africa.”

The former Constitutional Court justice is the first person to receive the George Bizos Human Rights Award in more than two years owing to Covid-19. Bizos received the inaugural award in 2018 before his death in 2020. 

Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke was the second recipient of the award, which was initiated by the LRC.

Speaking at the ceremony in Johannesburg on Thursday night, Moseneke said Mokgoro paved the way for many as she was the first black woman justice in the Constitutional Court and played a major role in setting jurisprudence.

Mokgoro said in her acceptance speech that, as the court’s first 11 justices, they understood the power their decisions around the Constitution and Bill of Rights would have “to carve out a society based on the foundation of a new democratic constitution which defines the ethical direction of the future. The contribution of ideas by the strong and well-organised civil society community. Researchers and information-based institutions, and some attached to academic institutions, found their way into the Constitution.”

“The legislature should work to curb situations like State Capture, place people at the centre of state interest and state service. Different sectors, the intergenerational, civil society, we need to come together to take back our state,” she added.

‘Ubuntu in action’

A highly decorated and respected expert in constitutional law with a long history of championing human rights and social justice, Mokgoro has received several honorary law degrees and has served on several boards, advisory committees and other bodies, including chairing the South African Law Reform Commission

From left: Legal Resources Centre national director Nersan Govender, LRC chairperson Thandi Orleyn, George Bizos Human Rights Award recipient Yvonne Mokgoro and former justice Dikgang Moseneke. (Photo: Bridget van Oerle)

Bizos was a human rights lawyer and activist who was committed to social justice and played a pivotal role in the transition from apartheid to democratic South Africa. He co-founded the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights, was senior counsel in the LRC’s Constitutional Litigation Unit in Johannesburg, and a lawyer to famous struggle veterans including Nelson Mandela.

In a letter, struggle veteran and former justice Albie Sachs said: “From the day she swore her oath to uphold the Constitution to the day she left the court 15 years later, she conducted herself as a quietly trialled and dignified judge. She had been subjected to oppression, fought for freedom… without a question, Yvonne was Ubuntu in action and Ubuntu in court.”

Mokgoro has distinguished herself as both a judge and a scholar, presenting papers and addressing conferences on constitutional law, human rights and customary law, particularly the impact of the law on women and children. Such is her international stature that in 2016 she was appointed chairperson of the United Nations Internal Justice Council. 

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She currently chairs the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Financial Services Conduct Authority Appeals Tribunal. Significantly, in 2021 Mokgoro was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to chair the newly created Mechanism on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Inequality against Africans and People of African Descent in the Context of Law Enforcement, following the murder of George Floyd in the US.

LRC chairperson Thandi Orleyn said the event was a double celebration as they remember Bizos fondly and award the incomparable Mokgoro. Alexi Bizos drew comparisons between his father and the recipient, saying: “George was committed to lifelong learning. There is the saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but he surprised me by grasping new ways and adapting. When his peers had retired, he still went to the office right until his passing. I also learnt that justice should be seen to be done.”

Bizos said there are a couple of George Bizos legacy projects in the works, including a bursary scheme, a documentary and justice work in South Africa and his home country of Greece. A square in his home village has been named after him, and the Bizos family continues to work to keep his work and legacy alive.

“From our family, we say a heartfelt congratulations to the awardee – may you continue your good works and inspire us to greater heights,” Bizos said.

After speaking extensively about South Africans standing up and taking ownership of the state, as well as collaboration and the significant role law practitioners should play to uphold peoples’ constitutional rights, Mokgoro paid homage to her family, which she confessed to not doing enough.

“Thank you to my family. My daughters are here and my grandchild. My children never complain and that inspires me to keep going and going. Thank you for being there for me all the time, I truly appreciate it, and I could never take it for granted,” she said. DM/MC

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