The importance of pro bono work during the freedom struggle

December 1st, 2018

National Director of ProBono.Org, Michelle Odayan, said ProBono.Org wanted to start a long-term conversation about some of the values and ethics and all character requirements to re-build or re-shape the profession. She was speaking at the dialogue hosted by ProBono.Org in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

By Kgomotso Ramotsho  

ProBono.Org in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted a dialogue on 11 October in Johannesburg. The dialogue was hosted to mark the centenary of the birth of the late President Nelson Mandela and dedicated to Mr Mandela the legal practitioner. The dialogue aimed to unpack the values and ethics that characterised the life of Mr Mandela, the legal profession and the relevance of re-shaping the ethical character of the legal profession today.

National Director of ProBono.Org, Michelle Odayan, said ProBono.Org saw fit to collaborate with the Nelson Mandela Foundation to have the dialogue with young legal practitioners, because the legal profession and young legal practitioners have new opportunities in redefining the legal landscape through the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA). ‘We thought it would be really important to have a start of a long-term conversation about some of the values and ethics and all character requirements to re-build or re-shape the profession,’ Ms Odayan said.

Overview on Nelson Mandela the legal practitioner and the impact of pro bono work in his time

Senior researcher at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sahm Venter, said if it was not for pro bono work the story of South Africa would be different. She said the role of pro bono legal practitioners was critical in political trials, such as the treason trial of Nelson Mandela. She pointed out that Mr Mandela and the late Oliver Tambo started a law firm in 1952 mainly to assist African clients for petty Apartheid crimes or offences. She added that the journey was short-lived as Messrs Mandela and Tambo were arrested in the 1956 in raids that resulted in the treason trial.

Senior researcher at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Sahm Venter, said if it was not for pro bono work the story of South Africa would be different.

Ms Venter spoke of how important the role of pro bono legal practitioners was at that time. She explained how Anglican Bishop, Ambrose Reeves, sought help from Canon John Collins of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mr Collins insisted that political trialists needed to be represented by a team of the best and most progressive legal practitioners. He established the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF), to be able to defend political activists while they went on trial. Ms Venter said the IDAF, among others, funded the defence of Solomon Mahlangu, the Upington 14, the Delmas Treason Trial, Steve Biko and many more.

Retired Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, said Mr Mandela was not a pro bono legal practitioner, but a revolutionary and freedom fighter. He added that one of the areas he functioned in best was the area of law. He pointed out that being a legal practitioner was a stepping stone for Mr Mandela in one of many moments in his life. He noted that Mr Mandela was an unusual legal practitioner who broke many laws to fight for his people.

Judge Sachs said at the treason trial Mr Mandela and some of his co-accused decided that they would defend themselves. He pointed out that it was then that the great Mr Mandela emerged as somebody who stood up in court to cross-examine the witnesses. He said there was something special about Mr Mandela, he had a special authority and people just stopped to listen to him. His style and poise and use of language was unique. He said Mr Mandela had a commanding presence, that made him stand out and he used his political style at court.

Judge Sachs said Messrs Mandela and Tambo’s aim was to be a part of the freedom struggle and then become legal practitioners that would support the freedom struggle. He pointed out that the pair were different because they started the only practising firm run by Africans. He said they were required to be at work at a certain time, which gave them time to give prime attention to work for the struggle. Judge Sachs said most of Messrs Mandela and Tambo’s energy went into the struggle, but to earn a living they took on multiple jobs for people and worked on cases such as divorce.

Judge Sachs said that it is important not to make it seem that the themes of ‘Mandela the legal practitioner’ and ‘Mandela the revolutionary’ were competing and fighting against one another. He pointed out that for Mr Mandela, law was the mechanism to get an independent living, but it was also the mechanism that Mr Mandela used to be able to carry on with his revolutionary work. He added that the legal background Mr Mandela had, gave him the confidence to provide guidance to the nation when it came to the drafting of the Constitution.

Perspective on the current legal environment with reference to the historical context

Senior Associate at ENSafrica, Lwando Xaso, spoke at the ProBono.Org and the Nelson Mandela Foundation dialogue on 11 October in Johannesburg.

Senior Associate at ENSafrica, Lwando Xaso, said she started focusing on Mr Mandela’s life earlier this year through a museum project she worked on. She pointed out that through research, she picked up three things she admires about Mr Mandela the ‘professional’. First was the fact that he was always early, secondly, he always dressed well and the third one was that even when he was chairing a meeting, and someone walked in the room, he would stand up, go to the door and greet the person.

Ms Xaso added that she uses Mr Mandela as inspiration when she experienced various things as a black female legal practitioner. She added that there was a number of things that she picked up on, which was of relevance to her. For example, she said it took Mr Mandela a long time to obtain his law degree and at some point, a professor told Mr Mandela that women and black people had no business doing law. She pointed out that many students can relate to that, as some go through similar situations from the community that they come from, where they are told that they will fail and cannot complete their studies. Ms Xaso said the pressure that Mr Mandela had and the pressure some students face today is the reason some even fail, because of the stress they endure trying to prove people wrong.

Ms Xaso added that she was inspired by the speech that Mr Mandela made about being a ‘black man in a white man’s court.’ She said the speech resonated with her because it can be substituted by black people in a white’s man’s company. She noted that young people dress in a smart way when going to interviews, because they are desperate and want a job and when they get the job they are expected to look, dress and behave a certain way. Young people then end up adopting the culture of that workplace, and in the process, they lose their culture. She noted that Mr Mandela said at court during a trial that he was not at ease. Ms Xaso said it made her think of how many people can actually say they are at ease in the workplace?

Ms Xaso added that people often think of transformation policies, but do not think about it in a meaningful way in terms of getting to know the people they are bringing into their spaces. She said that from the time Mr Mandela was a legal practitioner and in the current law profession some things have changed, but equally some are still unchanged.

Comments from the floor

Legal practitioners and candidate legal practitioners who attended the dialogue expressed how the marginalised people in the country are still left behind with regards to their position in the law. One attendee pointed out, in a community she came from, people did not even know about the Constitutional Court. Another speaker added that the legal profession is an honourable profession and to be in it, one needs to put the interest of others before oneself. The speaker encouraged legal practitioners to give back to the community by means of educating them about the law. Ms Odayan said that the notion that legal practitioners who contribute their services towards enabling more people to have access to justice are seen as poor and unstylish must be dispelled.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2018 (Dec) DR 11.

De Rebus