Perhaps it is important that I place a disclaimer right at the beginning and say yes, I am an admirer of Justice Dikgang Moseneke. So reading this might, for some, feel like reading fan mail. Pardon me in advance.
Looking at the landscape of public life in South Africa currently it can be difficult to find someone who can embody with outmost dignity the virtues of an outstanding person and, indeed, citizen. He is the embodiment of hard work, resilience, excellence and professionalism.
Those who have served with him will tell you that his particular strength and signature is that he is most interested in cutting through the nonsense that presents itself in court theatrics and excessively wordy submissions. This precision is his signature in all his work.
Never mincing his words and being fiercely independent is his nature, it would seem to me that this particular strength is the very motivation that caused him to be active in the PAC politics at the age of 15.
By the time he was 16 he was arrested and sent to Robben Island. It is probably the same clarity of mind and his deep sense of justice that had made it clear to him that the apartheid system was a heinous crime and therefore had to be resisted. The very fact that he saw and knew this and decided to act upon it at 15 years of age is a clear indication that in him is found a burning zeal for justice and this he would not compromise.
It is most likely the same maxim that led him to law. After being so denied such basic rights, Justice Moseneke understood that a law is no law if it is irrational. Thomas Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated”. It was unreasonable to erect any law based on race; it evidently was not aimed at achieving the common good. For this reason those laws needed to be cut through in order that real justice may emerge.
Justice Moseneke was in the forefront of transforming the judiciary even during apartheid. His application and acceptance into the Pretoria Bar in 1983 culminated in the eradication of the “whites only” membership rule.
He has served under three Chief Justices since 2002 when he started at the Constitutional Court. The fact that he was never appointed Chief Justice will always be puzzling to many.
Whatever the situation, Justice Moseneke never compromised on his work and he demanded only excellence. He did not just offer excellence but demanded it from all who presented themselves to the Constitutional Court. After serving for such a long time in the Constitutional court he had become the institution’s beacon of permanence. For this reason all the judges who joined him on the bench knew that they too had to match the standards of their work with his, otherwise they would weaken the institution.
Moseneke exudes a lot of confidence. It is precisely because he knows what he is doing that he is so confident. That type of confidence and stability can only be achieved through years of hard work.
He has served as a lawyer for 40 years, and that for him, it would seem, is not a reason to be complacent but rather to be even more committed to excellence. In an interview he did when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town last year he said personal vision must be matched with hard work. He went on to add that when it comes to important things, integrity, honesty and wanting to do the right thing should always be the goal.
It is interesting because these virtues that he alludes to seem so basic yet they are the very virtues that are missing in South Africa. This view points to the simplicity and clarity of mind that he has held consistently. There was no attempt on his part to try to fill his interview with nuances of veiled wisdom – he instead keeps it clear and simple.
Perhaps one of the most poignant phrases that stand out from that interview is when he said that “nobody owes us anything in the world – we must work hard”. Here is a man who was stripped of a decade of his life and arrested; he has all the reasons to be entitled to so much. He instead opted to work extremely hard, from studying law on Robben Island to the highest court in the land.
It is our wish that now that he is retiring his voice may be found among the voices of virtuous men and women who will be the social conscience of this country.
What a servant! We look forward to that book. #salute DM
Follow me at @NdlovuLawrence.