Founding President of the Black Lawyers Association honoured

October 28th, 2015

By Mapula Thebe

The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) held an inaugural memorial lecture and gala dinner in honour of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje. The memorial lecture, attended by 35 judges, was held at Constitution Hill on 9 October.

File picture of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje.

File picture of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje.

In a press statement issued by the president of the BLA, Busani Mabunda, before the memorial lecture, the BLA stated that it received blessings from the Pitje family to use the name of Mr Pitje for various key programmes. One such key identified programme is the Godfrey Pitje Annual Memorial Lecture. The memorial lecture is part of honouring the late Mr Pitje, as he dedicated part of his life to political liberation fighting against the apartheid system.


Mr Pitje was born in 1917, in the northern Transvaal, the son of semiliterate Bapedi parents. In 1944 he graduated with a BA degree, later obtaining advanced degrees in anthropology, education, and law from Fort Hare. In 1948 he was invited to lecture in anthropology at Fort Hare and was encouraged by Ashby Peter Mda, a friend and fellow teacher, to join politically minded students in establishing a Fort Hare branch of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. In 1949 Mr Pitje took over from Mr Mda as the ANC Youth League’s president. He was also elected to the ANC National Executive Committee in the same year. In 1951 he was succeeded as president of the Youth League by Nelson Mandela and retired from active politics. With the introduction of Bantu Education, teaching lost its appeal as a profession to Mr Pitje, he took up law and served articles in the firm of Mandela and Tambo, qualifying as an attorney in 1959. He was subject to bans from 1963 until 1975.

Memorial lecture

Delivering the inaugural memorial lecture, Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, said that he was privileged to sing the praises of Mr Pitje, the founding President of the BLA. Justice Moseneke added: ‘There is another good reason why I am here. In 1963, when I was 15 years of age and stood in the Synagogue for trial facing charges of a conspiracy to overthrow the state by violent means, Mokgonane Pitje was right there as our instructing attorney. He has been my father, as I fondly called him “Papa”.’

Legal career

Justice Moseneke said that Mr Pitje is a legend in the legal profession, a freedom fighter and a distinguished leader. ‘After joining Mandela and Tambo, Pitje was asked by his principals to stop his political activities so that he would retain his freedom of movement; as Mr Mandela and Mr Tambo were banned and their freedom of movement restricted. It was useful that Pitje was able to go to areas they could not reach. Much to the worry of OR Tambo, however, Mokgonane was irrepressible. He accepted several invitations to address ANC gatherings,’ he said.

Justice Moseneke noted that: ‘During this period, African attorneys faced extreme challenges and indignity. It was an offence to practise within “white” towns or cities. Black lawyers were not permitted to enter a courthouse through the main front entrance. They were not allowed to address the court from the same desk as their white colleagues. This issue formed the background for the notable case of R v Pitje [1960 (4) SA 709 (A)]. On 20 March 1958, while still an articled clerk, Mr Pitje went to Boksburg Magistrate’s Court to represent a client on a charge of trading without a licence. He was unaware that his senior, Mr Tambo, had previously withdrawn as an attorney of record in the same matter after the magistrate had ordered him to take a seat at a different desk than the one occupied by white attorneys and articled clerks. Upon arrival at the court, a court interpreter pointed Mr Pitje to a seat in a corner between the public gallery and the bench. Mr Pitje ignored him and took a seat at the desk that was normally occupied by white lawyers. The magistrate ordered Mr Pitje to go sit in the corner designated for black attorneys. Mokgonane refused to obey. A verbal exchange ensued between him and the magistrate. Pitje chose to withdraw as the attorney of record rather than to submit to the racial scam. Mr Pitje was summarily charged with contempt of court and sentenced to a fine or ten days imprisonment. He refused to pay the fine and was detained. An unknown person paid his fine and Mr Pitje was released on the same day. He appealed the sentence and conviction to the Appellate Division, the highest court in the land at the time. That court confirmed both the conviction and sentence.’

Justice Moseneke said that in 1959, Mr Pitje started his own practice. ‘Not long thereafter Ms Desiree Finca, a former domestic worker, from the Transkei, became the first African woman to be admitted as an attorney. She joined GM Pitje’s practice as a partner. Shortly thereafter, there was a relative flourish as a number of African practitioners were admitted within the old Transvaal during the 1960s through to mid-1970s.’

Involvement with the BLA

‘In 1977, Mr Pitje became a founding member of the Black Lawyers Association, initially called the Black Lawyers Discussion Group. The establishment of the Discussion Group was sparked by the obstacles that black lawyers were faced with daily in the legal field during Apartheid. … Black lawyers moved around daily with their admission certificates, much like pass books. Magistrates simply did not believe that they were attorneys. They had to prove their status. … And it was not uncommon for black lawyers to lose a case not on performance or merit, but because of the deep racial prejudice that pervaded the judiciary of the time. … In the same year that the Discussion Group was formed, it assisted me with my application to be admitted as an attorney, which had been opposed by the law society. We took this matter to court and prevailed, and I was enrolled as an attorney in 1978. At this point, the Discussion Group changed its name and became the Black Lawyers Association,’ said Justice Moseneke.

Justice Moseneke mentioned that Mr Pitje left practice in 1984 to become the Director of the Black Lawyers Association’s Legal Education Centre. ‘We established it to advance a set of well-defined objectives. The first was the skills enhancement of black lawyers who were victims of structural exclusions of apartheid and colonialism. The most prominent of this programme was advocacy training – it ran successfully for nearly 20 years. The second was the increase of black attorneys. This we did by creating and managing a placement scheme for black candidate attorneys in law firms. The third object was to litigate in public interest matters. … The fourth object was to produce the African Law Review in which oppressed lawyers would find a voice distinct and separate from formal law journals that were propping the apartheid order and its jurisprudence. Think again, those were truly revolutionary days. We set on a path to liberate ourselves,’ he said.

Delivering the inaugural memorial lecture, Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, said that he was privileged to sing the praises of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje, the founding President of the Black Lawyers Association.

Delivering the inaugural memorial lecture, Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, said that he was privileged to sing the praises of Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje, the founding President of the Black Lawyers Association.

Never forgotten

Justice Moseneke said that Mr Pitje passed away on 23 April 1997 from illness. ‘Tragically, this was only three years after our nation’s first democratic elections. I am confident that Mokgonane Pitje would have been proud of how far we have come. He would have saluted the gains that South Africa has made and our constitutional commitment to pursuing a more just and equal society. His contributions deserve honour and admiration by all in this country from lawyers to academics to politicians to lay persons,’ he said.

Justice Moseneke noted that the first lesson the life of Mr Pitje teaches attorneys is a lesson of courage and gritty determination. ‘He broke the barriers of his limiting rural socialisation to become what he yearned to be. Phokoane was too small a pond for a man who seemed to think that not even the sky was a ceiling. When he had to re-invent himself from a Master’s degree academic to a practising attorney, he did. He did this despite structural obstacles. … Good lawyers need courage and steadfastness. If you are a timorous soul you do not belong to the profession,’ he said.

Speaking about the intersection between legal practice and social justice, Justice Moseneke said: ‘You see, a man called Thomas Hobbs, an English Philosopher, many years ago, warned that life without a social contract would be “short, brutish and nasty”. The obvious implication is that we need an agreement or arrangement not to harm each other, not to oppress each other and to regulate our lives in a way that affords us a full realisation of our human potential. So, laws must be good. By that I mean we need laws to advance both individual and public good. Put simply, law is an agent or an instrument to regulate the achievement of public good. That explains why we need a representative body of people to make the laws that will serve best those who are governed.

‘It further explains why an executive government is bound to give effect to the will of the people by formulating beneficial policies and by implementing laws. To complete this pursuit of public good, it is necessary to have adjudicators who would resolve disputes. As they do, they interpret the law and ensure that it is observed and complied with. And lawyers in turn, are required to assist courts in the adjudication process and to support citizens as they assert their rights. So, lawyers must be in collective pursuit of individual and public good. That is why we train young people in the science of law – both the substance and process of the law. This means that lawyers are, in effect, the protagonists of what is good for the individual and the collectives in society. Lawyers should not keep a professional distance from projects that seek to refine or advance social justice. The law is more than a set of rules. It is a powerful instrument for social fairness,’ he said.

Justice Moseneke said that another tutorial from Mr Pitje’s life is that for lawyers to accomplish their task, they must act ethically. ‘They must be honest beings in their professional and public posture. … Lawyers must relate ethically to those who seek their help and to the world at large. Lawyers must not steal from their clients or from anyone else. They must not overreach when they set their fee. Practitioners must never lie in advancing their cause or that of their client. They must join, and not mislead, the court in the search for the truth. They must remain honourable in their professional disposition. After all, lawyers are indeed members of the honourable profession, despite some public misgivings,’ he said.


‘Another lesson from the Pitje legacy is how we should approach issues of transformation. Pitje practised at a time when there was no democratic and empathetic government to look up to. There was no burgeoning business and middle class who could possibly brief him and other black lawyers. Even if he had screamed about unfair briefing patterns, no one would have listened. Thanks to that, he had no wild expectations that the government of that day might brief him. It would not and did not. He knew that his earnings were likely to be depressed because he served by and large poor people living on the edges of society.

‘The power relations within an economy dictate choices of who should provide legal support services. The dominant business class calls the shots on the distribution of legal services to the profession and the acquisition of the required skills. Therefore, the dominant class dishes out patronage as it wishes and chooses. Briefing patterns of commercial or corporate work will always be reflective of the class, gender and race of the dominant decision makers. So, briefing patterns are not a function of compassion and good-heartedness or a wish list. No amount of pleading will help. They are informed by both the financial interest and prejudices of the moneyed class. Often, all this boils down to them using the legal services of those with whom they share race, class and gender. It is a jolly waste of time to call for a transformation of the profession and, in particular, of equitable distribution of work without changing the economic power relations in the private sector. Nobody will argue against the need for transformation, not even those who do not support it. But it will simply not happen at the behest of the private sector. So again, as when the Black Lawyers Association was formed, and as Bantu Biko also famously observed, we are on our own,’ Justice Moseneke said.


Mapula Thebe NDip Journ (DUT) BTech (Journ) (TUT) editor of De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (Nov) DR 6.