Bram Fischer lecture

September 30th, 2015

By Isabel Janse van Vuren

The Legal Resource Centre (LRC) held the ninth Bram Fischer Lecture at the University of Johannesburg on 4 September. These lectures have taken place since 1995, with the first speaker being former President Nelson Mandela, to commemorate the life of Bram Fischer.

Bram Fischer (Abram Louis Fischer) was a key figure in the anti-Apartheid movement. One of the key actions he is remembered for is defending former President Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial of 1963 and 1964, shortly after which he was arrested. Mr Fischer then went into hiding but was re-arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment and was released when sick and died in 1975 at his brother, Dr Paul Fishers’, house in Bloemfontein. In 1967 Mr Fischer was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, in 2003 the High Court of South Africa posthumously readmitted him to the roll of advocates, and in 2004 Stellenbosch University awarded him a posthumous honorary degree.

The ninth lecture to commemorate Mr Fischer was delivered by Beatrice Mtetwa. Ms Mtetwa is an internationally recognised Zimbabwean lawyer, being labelled by the New York Times as ‘Zimbabwe’s top human rights lawyer’. She is known for defending journalists and press freedom in her country. Ms Mtetwa is the only other African, former President Nelson Mandela being the other, to receive the French Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize.

Ms Mtetwa started off her lecture by stating that it was not going to be a lecture but rather a speech about her experiences in Zimbabwe, ‘with a view to encouraging South Africans not to fall into the same trap that we fell into in Zimbabwe and the theme really is that we have to be constantly vigilant in the observance of the law and that we have to keep our eye on the ball.’

Ms Mtetwa made reference to the Magna Carta and said its theme had not changed in 800 years, people did not want others to lord their rule over them. However, from everyday experiences it is evident that the journey to that being a reality is still very long. She was adamant that people should constantly be vigilant in ensuring that the rights in the Constitution are enforced and not abused or neglected.

According to Ms Mtetwa, there was no colour to the people who fought against Apartheid, when human rights are violated there should not be an obsession with who is trying to enforce the rights. Ms Mtetwa added that: ‘Apartheid was fought from all angles by all manner of people, including of course, the likes of Bram Fischer.’ She went on to mention that when Zimbabwe gained its independence the white community in the country retracted from participating in public life. This was when it became easy to label people. Ms Mtetwa, however, reiterated that the battles against Apartheid, independence and democracy was fought by many different people from many different angles.

Ms Mtetwa said leaders of South Africa should look back at the African National Congress’s ‘Ready to Govern’ document and realise that when litigation is taking place in South Africa it is not to fight for the rights of an American or British citizen, but a South African, one who is being denied a right. The document states: ‘The Bill of Rights will be enforced by the courts, headed by a separate newly created Constitutional Court, which will have the task of upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens against the state or anybody or person seeking to deny those rights. The judges will be independent, and will consist of men and women drawn from all sections of the community on the basis of their integrity, skills, life experience and wisdom.’ This means that what a court decides is final, if the outcome is not liked then there are ways of appealing. There should not be interdependence between the executive and the judiciary, the two are not supposed to influence each other, said Ms Mtetwa.

Ms Mtetwa said lawyers, human rights defenders and activists must persistently and without apology work towards attaining more transparency and accountability in life. She added: ‘In Africa, corruption has become the bane of the entire continent.’ She also said that economic growth has been stunted by corruption and she very strongly believed that if nothing is done to ensure that corruption is rooted out then it would shame all the human rights defenders of the past, Bram Fischer being one of them. Ms Mtetwa went on to say: ‘My view, in our country, certainly patronage has become the same as Apartheid. It is the same in my view because it is based on inequality, the same inequality that we saw in Apartheid.’ This being that the system only gives to those who have power and their beneficiaries, however, Ms Mtetwa warned that anything that is based and built on inequality will eventually fall like a deck of cards.

South Africa should be cautious of the ‘little things which will divide the nation’. Ms Mtetwa said in reference to the different interpretations of the recent Omar Al-Bashir case. She said that the case was based on the South African Constitution and taken to court based on a South African statute that required the government to do certain things. Her ‘bottom line’ on the issue as a whole was that there was a court order given, which should have been complied with and enforced, not ignored. She said that by letting the government not comply with the court order it sets a precedence. ‘If this kind of defiance is allowed to take root without the legal profession and civil society ensuring that the court orders are complied with, South Africa will be on its way to ruin,’ she stated.

South Africa’s electoral commission is one of the few commissions which still functions properly, according to Ms Mtetwa. It must therefore be protected against corruption, otherwise South Africa will have the same problems as Zimbabwe, where the line has become blurred as to where the electoral committee starts and the political parties end. With that in mind she advised all South Africans to make sure that as the public prosecutor’s (Thuli Madonsela) term comes to an end, South Africa should ensure that the person to take her place cannot be cowed into doing anything other than what the institution requires of him or her. The foundation has been laid out by advocate Thuli Madonsela, it must just be maintained.

Ms Mtetwa ended her lecture with a warning to all South Africans to not fall into the same trap, the trap of not dealing with defiance of the law that Zimbabwe fell into. South Africans should not take its eye off the ball and speak up when anything is being done that is not right in terms of the law and our Constitution.

Isabel Janse van Vuren BIS Publishing (Hons) (UP) is a sub-editor at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (Oct) DR 15.