Farewell to ‘one of the greatest moral compasses’

February 1st, 2014

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918 – 2013

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

The legal fraternity has been mourning the loss of ‘one of the greatest moral compasses’, former President Nelson Mandela, who died on 5 December at the age of 95.

Former President Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically-elected pre­sident, an icon of peace and reconciliation the world over and a lawyer at heart. He attended the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied law. While in his first year, he was expelled from the University of Fort Hare after joining a student protest. He later completed his BA degree through the University of South Africa (Unisa), which he followed up with a law degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Legal career

Former President Mandela began his legal career working as a clerk in a law firm. He studied in the evening through a correspondence course with Unisa to complete his BA degree, which he was awarded in 1941. In 1942 he was articled to another firm of attorneys and started on a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand. By 1948 Nelson Mandela had failed to pass the exams required for his LLB degree and he decided instead to settle for the ‘qualifying’ exam that would allow him to practise as an attorney. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened the first black law firm in South Africa, Mandela and Tambo in 1952. The bulk of their work involved defending people affected by apartheid laws. His landmark legal achievement was his initiating the first non-racial law in South Africa in 1994 as part of the negotiations to end apartheid, namely the interim Constitution, which became the Constitution on 4 February 1997.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he described his career as an attorney (N Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell 1994) at p 137): ‘In 1951, after I had completed my articles at Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, I went to work for the law firm of Terblanche & Briggish. When I completed my articles, I was not yet a fully-fledged attorney, but I was in a position to draw court pleadings, send out summonses, interview witnesses – all of which an attorney must do before a case goes to court. After leaving Sidelsky, I had investigated a number of white firms – there were, of course, no African law firms. I was particularly interested in the scale of fees charged by these firms and was outraged to discover that many of the most blue-chip law firms charged Africans even higher fees for criminal and civil cases than they did their far wealthier white clients.’

‘After working for Terblanche & Briggish for about one year, I joined the firm of Helman and Michel. It was a liberal firm, and one of the few that charged Africans on a reasonable scale … . I stayed at Helman and Michel for a number of months while I was studying for my qualification exam, which would establish me as a fully-fledged attorney. I had given up studying for my LLB degree at the University of the Witwatersrand after failing my exams several times. I opted to take the qualifying exam so that I could practise and begin to earn enough money to support my family’ (at p 137).

After passing his examination, Mr Mandela went to work for HM Basner as a fully-fledged attorney. Basner was a passionate supporter and defender of African rights. According to Mandela ‘[f]or the months that I worked there, I was often in court representing the firm’s many African clients … [a]fter the experience I gained there, I felt ready to go off on my own’ (at p 138).

In his book, former President Mandela outlined his first few months of practice. ‘In August of 1952, I opened my own law office. … Oliver Tambo was then working for a firm called Kovalsky and Tuch. I often visited him there during his lunch hour, and made a point of sitting in a Whites Only chair in the Whites Only waiting room. … It seemed natural for us to practise together and I asked him to join me. … “Mandela and Tambo” read the brass plate on our office door in Chancellor House, a small building just across the street from the marble statues of Justice standing in front of the Magistrate’s Court in central Johannesburg. Our building, owned by Indians, was one of the few places where Africans could rent offices in the city. From the beginning, Mandela and Tambo was besieged with clients. We were not the only African lawyers in South Africa, but we were the only firm of African lawyers. For Africans, we were the firm of first choice and last resort. To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the hallways, on the stairs, and in our small waiting room.’

‘Africans were desperate for legal help in government buildings: It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live’ (at pp 138–139).

Mr Mandela went on to write that he quickly realised what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans. He added that their law firm was a place where people could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competentally, ‘a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin colour. This was the reason I had become a lawyer in the first place, and my work often made me feel I had made the right decision’ (at p 139)

According to Mr Mandela they often dealt with half a dozen cases in a morning, and were in and out of court all day long. He wrote that in some courts they were treated with courtesy while in others with contempt. ‘But even as we practised and fought and won cases, we always knew that no matter how well we pursued our careers as attorneys, we could never become a prosecutor, a magistrate, a judge. …[W]e often encountered prejudice in the court itself. White witnesses often refused to answer questions from a black attorney’ (at p 139).

Mr Mandela said that ‘[w]orking as a lawyer in South Africa meant operating under a debased system of justice, a code of law that did not enshrine equality but its opposite’ (at p 141).

Mr Mandela wrote that when he had a case outside of Johannesburg he applied for his bans to be temporarily lifted. He reminisced about a case that made him travel to Carolina in the then eastern Transvaal. ‘My arrival caused quite a sensation, as many of the people had never before seen an African lawyer. … [T]he case did not begin for quite a while as they asked me numerous questions about my career and how I became a lawyer. … As an attorney, I could be rather flamboyant in court. I did not act as though I were a black man in a white man’s court, but as if everyone else – white and black – was a guest in my court. When presenting a case, I often made sweeping gestures and used high-flown language’ (at pp 141–142).

Tributes from the legal profession

Law Society of South Africa

The legal fraternity has paid tribute to the former President in the form of press releases. The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) said that the attorneys’ profession had lost one of its greatest moral compasses. ‘To the world he was an icon, to his family and our nation, a father, but to the attorneys’ profession he was the embodiment of the principles that all in the profession aspire to: Reconciliation, social justice and respect for the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights,’ the Co-chairpersons of the LSSA, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu and David Bekker said.

Commonwealth Lawyers Association

The Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) said that it was deeply saddened by the death. It added: ‘Mandela’s life was filled with purpose and he came to embody the fight for human rights, justice and equality for all. While mourning his death, the CLA celebrates his achievements and recognises his enduring legacy particularly in fostering forgiveness and reconciliation among a people scarred by the crimes of apartheid. The CLA is proud that Mandela was a member of our profession.’

International Bar Association

The International Bar Association joined the international community in expressing sadness at the announcement of the death of former President Mandela who was the Founding Honorary President of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and international ambassador for democracy and freedom. Zimbabwean lawyer and IBAHRI Co-chairperson, Sternford Moyo, said, ‘I am deeply saddened by the death of the great Nelson Mandela, who has done so much for freedom and democracy in Southern Africa. Mr Mandela’s courage and determination to fight for justice and equality is an inspiration to us all. He was an incredible man, who demonstrated enormous courage and sacrifice for the cause and principles in which he believed. His achievements are both within and outside of the political arena, and span beyond the borders of South Africa. His legacy will remain.’

Free State Law Society

The Free State Law Society said that the passing brought sadness to the hearts of all and sundry, not only on the continent, but to the world at large. ‘As a lawyer, he was a formidable fighter for human rights together with his partner, the late Oliver Tambo; with whom he challenged the apartheid system and fought the injustice that pervaded the country. He was a man so challenged and yet so forgiving. Not many are like him. A man of all seasons who stood by his principles and said his truth with neither fear nor favour. We in the legal profession are saddened by his death; yet find solace in the memory of his brilliant life and the legacy he left; which all of us should strive to emulate.’

Kwa-Zulu Natal Law Society

The KwaZulu-Natal Law Society said that the brightness that shines on us as a nation, a continent and the world flickered briefly with the passing away of the former President. It said: ‘We are proud to record that Mr Mandela was one of us, a dedicated attorney, who was one of the first black lawyers in our country. He practised at the height of apartheid serving the poor, the marginalised and disenfranchised … . Insofar as the legal profession is concerned he also initiated legislation to reform the profession, such as the right of appearance of attorneys in the High Court. The Legal Practice Bill that has just been passed by parliament is no doubt one of the great reforms initiated under the presidency and leadership of Mr Mandela to transform the legal profession for the benefit our society.’

Black Lawyers Association

The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) said that no amount of words could ‘equal the huge loss the human race has suffered due to the death of the father of the nation.’ It added that the BLA would forever cherish former President Mandela’s contribution to our just society and legal system. ‘Madiba, a legal giant himself fought fiercely against discriminatory laws in our courts. He opposed with all his strength the demarcation, by race, of seating arrangement of attorneys in courts. It is through the contribution and efforts of Mandela that black legal practitioners of South Africa can today practice law in the fields of their choice and in the big cities and suburbs free from harassment and possible persecution against legislation and enforcement by the apartheid regime.’

National Association of Democratic Lawyers

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers was greatly saddened to hear of the passing. It said that former President Mandela, together with such giants as Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, showed us that a legal career was a means of effecting societal change.


Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng issued a press release on behalf of the judiciary. He said that he was grossly saddened by the news of his passing.  ‘A legal eagle who was a true human rights champion; whose seminal contribution to redressing South Africa’s unjust socio-political imbalances truly rendered him a father of our nation. It is our wish that our country and the world would continue to emulate his vigour and passion for nation building, profound compassion and forgiveness – which will ultimately help our nation map out new ways of dealing with the rifts that continue to plague us as a people, thus contributing to our much-needed nation building and oneness,’ he said.

Pan African Lawyers Union

The Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) expressed its condolences to the family of Nelson Mandela, the people of South Africa, Africa and the world at large. It said: ‘We celebrate his life and the great impact he made in the development of the law, legal profession, rule of law, human and peoples’ rights and democracy and he will forever be the honorary life president of PALU.’

South African Women Lawyers Association

The South African Women Lawyers Asso­ciation (SAWLA) said that it was saddened by the passing of a legal eagle who made an immense contribution to a just society and the legal fraternity. ‘SAWLA will remember Tata Madiba by the speech he made as the country’s president on 9 August 1996 during the South African Women’s Day commemorations in Pretoria. Tata Madiba acknowledged that the legacy of oppression weighed heavily on women and undertook to strengthen the forces for change in the country and committed to specific and practical guidelines for attaining gender equality and the empowerment of women. “Equal power and glory to the women of South Africa”, those are the words he saluted with and will always echo in the ears of women and he will always be remembered with by women in this country. It is by his legacy that women continue with their fights and efforts in ensuring the equal power to women.’

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele, nomfundo@derebus.org.za

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (Jan/Feb) DR 6.