The BLA celebrates its 40th anniversary in October: We have come this far because we stand on the shoulders of giants

May 1st, 2017
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By Lutendo Benedict Sigogo

The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) will celebrate its 40th anniversary in October. The BLA was established in October 1977 when a few black lawyers came together to unite against the mayhems and harsh treatment which they were subjected to by the then Apartheid government. Equally, they did not receive the necessary assistance and support from their provincial law societies. Individually, they tried to stand for their rights and defy any form of discrimination and ill treatment they came across, even from the courts. They, however, realised that on their own they would not succeed, as the odds with which they were faced, required a collective resistance, hence the birth of the BLA.

Government prevented black lawyers practicing in major cities in terms of the Group Areas Act in its numerous forms, namely, Act 41 of 1950, Act 77 of 1957 and 36 of 1966. The Law Society of the Transvaal did not intervene to protect the rights of the black lawyers who wanted to practice in city centers, such as Johannesburg. The case of R v Pitje 1960 (4) SA 709 (A) gives an indication of the form and amount of discrimination black practitioners were confronted with in courts. Black practitioners were supposed to be protected by the courts in defense of the rule of law and equality before the law, instead the opposite was the case as can be observed in the trial and conviction of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje, who refused to take a seat on the side demarcated for black practitioners in court. Mr Pitje fought his case to the highest court of the land, the Appellate Division (now the Supreme Court of Appeal) and lost his appeal. This was another serious indicator that the fight against discrimination within the legal profession would not be won individually. It, therefore, did not come as a surprise that Mr Pitje became the founding president of the BLA.

This is why when we celebrate the existence of the BLA, over the past 40 years, we must also reflect on black lawyers in South Africa (SA) and draw some lessons from their lives and selfless leadership. The practicing of law by black lawyers in SA started with the dawn of the 20th century. South Africa – despite its early coming into contact with the Roman-Dutch law by the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape in 1652 – did not have a South African lawyer of African descent until the arrival of Alfred Mangena in 1910. On the other hand, other African countries such as the Gold Coast (British Colony) (now Ghana) had its first African lawyer, John Mensah Sarbah, as early as 1887.

The first black person recorded to practice law is SA was Mahatma Gandhi (an Indian citizen) who came to SA in 1893. He was followed by Henry Sylvester-Williams (a Trinidadian) who qualified as a barrister in England and came to SA in 1903, he became the first black man to be called to the Bar in the Cape Colony. After him came Mr Mangena, who also qualified in England and was called to the Bar in 1909. In 1910 he returned to SA as the first black South African to qualify as an attorney in SA. In 1911, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, came home from Europe, qualified as SA’s second black lawyer. In 1916 Mangena and Seme went into partnership under the name of Mangena and Seme Solicitors. These two represented the first generation of the black lawyers in SA.

The second age of black lawyers is represented by the era of Anton Lembede who obtained his law degree at the University of South Africa in 1942 and later qualified as an attorney after having served articles under Mr Seme. In the early 50s, we saw the emergence of Nelson Mandela who opened his law offices as an attorney in August 1952 and in December of the same year he was joined by Oliver Tambo in what came to be affectionately known as Mandela and Tambo. Apart from the fact that there were other black lawyers in SA, Mandela and Tambo was the only black law firm with multiple partners in the then Transvaal, and apparently in the whole of SA at the time. In 1955 Duma Nokwe joined this group as an advocate and was the first black advocate of the Supreme Court of Transvaal. The last of this group was Mr Pitje who was admitted as an attorney in 1959. Mr Pitje served his articles of clerkship in the firm of Mandela and Tambo. Mr Pitje became the game changer as he conversed with other black lawyers and formed the BLA, which was founded in 1977 with Mr Pitje appointed its inaugural president.

The third generation of black South African lawyers was mainly represented by the founding members of the BLA. Among them were: JN Madikizela; VLA Bekwa; GSS Maluleke; KS Kunene; SKS Makhambeni; WV Ngxekisa; TT Mokone; HT Netshifhefhe; WL Seriti; MA Ndlovu; D Nkadimeng; DM Finca; BP Matswiki; SJ Monyatsi; and DJSS Moshidi.

South Africa did not have a black female lawyers until 1962 when Zainunnisa ‘Cissie’ Gool, from District Six in Cape Town, became the first black female advocate in SA. It was only in 1967 when the first black female attorneys were admitted to practice law. These were Desiree Finca and Navi Pillay, from Natal and the Transkei of African and Indian descent, respectively. Ms Finca served her articles under Mr Pitje. Later other women found their way into the profession such as Ms Matswiki (one of the founding members of the BLA).

From the first black lawyers we see important characteristics. Firstly, they did not see each other as competitors but they complemented one another. It is remarkable that Mr Mangena and Mr Seme – when they were still the only two black lawyers in the country – formed a partnership. In the Transvaal Mr Mandela and Mr Tambo practiced in partnership. The other quality that we see in these outstanding personalities is that they made it their mission to multiply the numbers of black lawyers by giving new entrants opportunity to serve articles and join the profession. Mr Seme gave an opportunity to Mr Lembede, Mr Mandela and Mr Tambo allowed Mr Pitje to serve articles under them. Mr Pitje in turn saw it fit to contract Ms Finca, the first black female, to serve articles of clerkship and be admitted as an attorney. They were indeed an extraordinary blend of society.

The founders of the BLA came from different political backgrounds and ideologies. They were brought together by one bond, that black lawyers suffered discrimination and hardship in the hands of the Apartheid government. It made no difference to them whether one was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), Azanian People’s Organisation, Pan Africanist Congress or South African Communist Party. They were never partisan, they stood for the interest of black lawyers and the black community. They wanted freedom for all and the respect of the rule of law. This has been the foundation of the BLA and it continues as such.

The black lawyers from Mr Mangena to Mr Mandela and Mr Pitje were selfless distinguished human beings. They used their education to protect, enlighten and empower their people. It was not about their own personal interest, it was education for the benefit of many. They could have chosen to use their new found status for self-enrichment but they chose not to. They found it appropriate, in times of need, to close their practices in order to pursue what they deemed noble and worth chasing. These are the men and women to whom we owe our being and the privilege that we now enjoy. We are lawyers today because they made it possible for us. That is why it is of importance that when we commemorate the BLA’s 40th anniversary we must not be oblivious of the sacrifice these men and women made in order for us to be called lawyers.

We owe it to Mr Mangena for his vision and courage to believe in himself that he could become a black lawyer when, at the time, everyone else from his race was destined to become a teacher, if not a priest. When he had no example to emulate he offered himself as a ‘guinea pig’ to experience it for all of us. In him we see that nothing is impossible as long as you have the will and opportunity is not denied. Another pioneer to be specially recognised as we celebrate this milestone is Mr Pitje. Through his own personal experience, when he was subjected to abuse by a magistrate and the highest court of the land failed to protect him, he came to realise that no matter how strong one’s character might be we are only strong when we come together. This vision is the same as that of Mr Sarbah when he came together with other African intellectuals in Ghana to establish the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society in their country. Mangena and Seme did the same when they formed the ANC.

The voice and strength of the BLA saw many of our people gain access to the legal profession and some grew to the highest echelons that the legal profession may offer. For instance, if it had not been for the BLA, which fought for the admission of the recently retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke as an attorney in 1978, SA and the global legal fraternity would have been robbed of one of the finest jurist and legal brains this era has produced.

The current crop of the BLA must build on this rich history to continue with the strong legacy of those who came before us. In these past 40 years, the BLA has achieved much and there is no room for us to be despondent. We owe it to the coming generations to address the challenges facing us today in a manner that they will look back and appreciate the role we would have played. We still have a lot to achieve and we need not doubt our future because if we have come this far, ‘… it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, as Isaac Newton once remarked.

It is on account of these giants that we today walk tall as we celebrate the contributions by the BLA in the transformation of the legal profession.

Lutendo Benedict Sigogo, President of the Black Lawyers Association

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (May) DR 13.

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