If it wasn’t for the UCT’s Pat Baxter, things would have happened differently
By Wallace Mqogi
In 1985, on September 10, the same year that the National Party government declared a state of emergency in South Africa, a white South African woman, Mrs Pat Baxter, a faculty officer in the Law Faculty at the University of Cape Town, wrote a testimonial for a young black student whom she had occasion to watch over a period of four years in that faculty (1981-1984).
In the testimonial she wrote prophetic words: “He is a notable and honourable graduate of this faculty and I am sure that he will succeed in whatever he undertakes, as he has proved by his record of hard work and determination in the past ...”
At the time she wrote the testimonial in 1985, the student was completing a year of fellowship as an intern at the Legal Resources Centre, with the intention of practising in a public interest law firm, to promote and protect human rights, which was the reason he chose to study law in the first place, after qualifying as a social worker.
At the time, universities like UCT were not allowed to admit black (African), coloured and Indian students, without producing a ministerial permit, which exonerated them from studying at the universities designated for them. The student had previously been expelled from Fort Hare University for staging a protest against the arbitrary expulsion of other students.
Despite this, the student managed to get the ministerial permit allowing him to study at UCT after writing a letter to the Minister of Education. The student showed up at the Law Faculty, with the copy of a BA (Social Work) degree and the results of his first year of study at Unisa, among these Latin 1.
When Baxter saw these results, she said to the student: “I am going to move heaven and earth to make sure that you are admitted to this faculty.”
Hearing these words was so encouraging that the student knew that he had to work so hard to prove this white lady right in her assessment of him.
She mentioned that having passed Latin 1 was alone a strong recommendation, as there were students who could not qualify in their LLB studies because they could not pass Latin 1, which was peremptory.
Indeed, she moved heaven and earth as the student was admitted and qualified in his LLB studies at the end of 1984, hence she happily wrote the testimonial in September 1985 for purposes of seeking Articles of Clerkship in order to be admitted as an attorney.
After the fellowship year at the Legal Resources Centre in 1985, the student completed the Articles of Clerkship at the law firm Syfret-Godlonton-Fuller Moore Inc in 1986-87, and at the beginning of 1988 was led by the late former minister of justice and transport Advocate Dullah Omar to be admitted as an attorney.
All this was made possible by the positive attitude of Baxter, when the student arrived at the faculty office.
Things could have turned out differently, but for her generous spirit.
The student became an attorney representing poor communities from 1988 until 1995, during which time a community he represented for five years applied to the National Places Names Board to have their place (Uitkyk) renamed Wallacedene, after his name, in 1992.
Pat Baxter’s words were already becoming fulfilled, as she had prophesied earlier.
The student went on to be appointed one of the founding commissioners of the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, a position he held as regional commissioner for four years, and later as chief land claims commissioner for another four years.
The student went on to become the first black city manager of the City of Cape Town, for a period of three years. He was later appointed for a seven-year term as commissioner in the Commission for Gender Equality (2012-2019); concurrently, he was appointed by the then minister of justice, in terms of Section 175 (2) of the Constitution, as Acting Judge of the Land Claims Court, from January 2014, an appointment that was meant to be only for a term, but lasted for five years and 10 months, because of the complex and protracted nature of land restitution claims.
Nothing could have made Pat Baxter’s heart dance more than the fact that the very university, UCT, she fought so hard to have the student admitted to was the first, as his alma mater, to confer an honorary LLD degree on him (in 2002) in recognition of the human rights promotion and protection the student had achieved.
The Walter Sisulu University also conferred an honorary LLD degree (in 2004), followed by the Queen’s College School of Law, City University of New York, conferring an honorary LLD degree (in 2004), also in recognition of a track record of human rights promotion and protection. The General Council of the Bar of South Africa made the student the third recipient of the prestigious Sir Sydney and Lady Felicia Kentridge Human Rights Award (in 2002), received exclusively by prominent judges, followed by the Duma Nokwe Human Rights Award (2002).
All of this would have been a source of happiness for this lady with a big heart. When the student held the position of city manager, he remembered what she had done for him, tracked her down and arranged to have a luncheon with her. She was overwhelmed by the gesture and over the moon, by this little act of kindness, “doing good in minute particulars”.
There are people who are put in your path of life for the purpose of setting you on a pedestal that will propel you to dizzying heights of success, against all odds, as Baxter did in the life of this student. No wonder William Blake (1757-1827) said it is not so much about big things that we can do good to one another.
Let me allow him to say it in his eloquent language: “If you wish to do good, one to another, you should do it in minute particulars.”
This is exactly what Baxter did. It was within her capability to make sure that the student was admitted and to leave the rest to take care of itself.
For this, the memory of what she did for the student will remain permanently etched in his mind, especially in a climate which was not encouraging this kind of openness and humaneness. On the contrary, the climate was promoting hostility and denigration to people of the student’s racial classification – at the peak of the apartheid juggernaut.
Another interesting twist in events happened when a vacancy occurred on the University Council. There had to be a government representative on the University Council. Dr Mamphela Ramphele arranged that the student be appointed to the council as such a representative from 1988 to 1995. The student was later appointed as Governor on the University Board of Governors, of the same university that nearly refused his admission as a student.
On reaching 70 years of a colourful career, the student took up the position of chairperson of an IT company, AYO Technology Solutions, and in his spare time brings together capital seekers or people with bankable agricultural projects with capital providers/ investors who are keen to invest in agricultural projects targeting export markets, so that they are able to earn foreign revenue and are able to service the foreign loans and still be profitable for their business ventures.
At community level, he and his wife of 46 years in marriage conduct a marriage and marriage counselling service, free of charge, to young couples who may be experiencing marriage problems, sharing their experiences and insights, under the auspices of the Isiseko Family Institute, founded by friends Mbulelo and Nombulelo Bikwani, exactly 10 years ago this year.
Dr Wallace Amos Mgoqi is the chairperson of AYO Technology Solutions and writes in his personal capacity