BLA stalwart laid to rest

March 1st, 2023

By Maboku Mangena

The legal profession is reeling with shock after losing one of its own members, Thokwane Phineas Moloto at the age of 73. Mr Moloto who was affectionately known as ‘Post’ was a practicing attorney for many years before he converted to be an advocate in 2022.

He started his career as an articled clerk in Germiston in 1980 and was admitted as an attorney in 1983. Soon after his admission, he opened his own law firm in Benoni under the name and style of TP Moloto and Company, a law firm that was to become a training centre for many young black students who aspired to become attorneys. The firm is reported to have produced over 65 practicing attorneys some of whom are judges of the High Court.

It is in this context that Constitutional Court Justice RS Mathopo, speaking at the memorial service told the mourners that Mr Moloto had made an immense contribution to the judiciary and deserved much more than he was credited for. He may not have aspired to become a judge, but it would have been a good semblance of an acknowledgment of his contribution if the judiciary could have asked him to sit as an acting judge and tap on his wisdom. It is regrettable that he passed away without the judiciary bestowing this honour on him.

Commenting on his passing, the President of the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), Bayethe Maswazi said that the BLA had lost a committed soldier with an unshakable commitment to the cause for which the BLA stands. The same sentiments were echoed by former Chairperson of the BLA in Gauteng, Chris Mamathuntsha, who described Mr Moloto as ‘a fine gentleman, elder and comrade in the struggle for transformation of the society in general and the judiciary in particular … a disciplined member of the BLA to the end’.

A memorial service was held on the 18 January 2023 in Benoni where speaker after speaker reflected on the bravery of Mr Moloto. He was called a trailblazer and path finder who was not afraid to face injustice whenever he met it, sometimes to his own detriment. He had during his lifetime worked tirelessly for black people in South Africa to realise the lofty ideals set out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Mr Mapheto referred to him as a humble servant who lived by the values and ethics of the profession, he so much dedicated his life to.

Delivering a tribute through Mr Nano Matlala, Mathata Tsedu a renowned journalist and former editor of the Sowetan, City Press and the Sunday Times said the following about Mr Moloto:

‘He was a language warrior who refused to buy into the hype of 11 official languages. He did not only choose law as a terrain of the struggle, but also what language and what norms influenced the law and dispensing justice. As an activist, he became a one-man army in the courts of our land, arguing that he should be able to argue his cases in Sepedi and went ahead to do so.’

He further described him as ‘a practicing Pan-Africanist, who not only believed but knew that freedom was more than the ballot every five years. He knew that the ability to go to school and learn whatever subject in your mother tongue was the height of freedom. He knew too, that the inability to do so was the prime indication of false freedom’.

Indeed, the law reports bears testimony to his zeal to use the law as a tool to advance the struggle for equality in our country. In Matemane v Magistrate, Alberton, and Another 1991 (4) SA 613 (W), Mr Moloto single-handedly confronted the Apartheid monstrosity by arguing for the right of the legal representative to present a case on the language they were proficient in. The case started in 1987 before the adoption of the Interim Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Mr Moloto dared the Apartheid government at the height of repression through the state of emergency imposed against black people when he refused to use Afrikaans.

The case demonstrated the bravery of Mr Moloto as he refused to cower to the pressure of the magistrate and asserted the rights of his client. He is on record as having refused to cross-examine a witness in Afrikaans and insisted on using English even though the witness had testified in Afrikaans. His insistence was a direct attack on the foundations of the Apartheid legal order, which was using the courts and the then law societies to sustain itself in power. In this sense, Mr Moloto became a voice for all the oppressed black lawyers in the country. It is no overstatement to say that all black practicing attorneys and advocates are the beneficiaries of his legacy. If it was not for him, Afrikaans would have still been forced down the throats of lawyers as a language of record in our courts.

The Legal Practice Council (LPC) remembered him as a fearless fighter for legal practitioners. Council member of the LPC, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu who is also his contemporary said the LPC had lost a dedicated member and is poorer without him.

Mr Moloto’s contribution was felt all over the continent of Africa and his death touched many people in Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe where he obtained his LLB degree. Messages of support were received from organisations, such as the Pan African Lawyers Union and Southern African Development Community Lawyers Association for which he was a founding member.

Mr Moloto passed away on the 14 January 2023 after a short illness. He was laid to rest on 21 January 2023 in Tjibeng Village, Limpopo Province. His funeral was attended by dignitaries, which included among others, Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Francis Legodi, Gauteng Local Division of the High Court, Judge Marcus Senyatsi, and Limpopo Division of the High Court, Judge MG Phatudi who delivered a tribute on behalf of the judiciary. Premier of Limpopo, Stanley Mathabatha together with the Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi were also in attendance. Mr Moloto is survived by his wife, children, and siblings. He will be missed by his community, the BLA, the legal profession and the country at large.

Maboku Mangena BProc (UniVen) PG Dip Corporate law (Unisa) Taxation Adv (UP) is legal practitioner, notary, and conveyancer at Maboku Mangena Attorneys Inc in Polokwane.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (Jan/Feb) DR 4.