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Desai: The story of ‘a people’s judge’ and Struggle lawyer

Western Cape Judge Siraj Desai, who retired from the bench earlier this month, has now been appointed South Africa’s Legal Services Ombud. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Western Cape Judge Siraj Desai, who retired from the bench earlier this month, has now been appointed South Africa’s Legal Services Ombud. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Dec 31, 2020

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"Enter the profession, but if you enter it simply for greed and to make money, you may or may not necessarily have a successful career. If you enter the legal profession to advance the rights and liberties of the poor, and the entrenchment of their dignity, you’ll have a much more meaningful and exciting career, and you will definitely succeed.“

This was the sage advice retired Western Cape High Court judge Siraj Desai had for those aspiring to join the legal fraternity. Desai, who retired from the bench earlier this month, has now been appointed South Africa’s Legal Services Ombud.

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Days before this watershed appointment, Desai, one of the best legal minds in the country, encouraged young people to join the profession. But he also cautioned against a close minded approach and said the sole motive of making profit would be the recipe for an uninspiring career.

“Entering simply out of greed to make money, you may succeed or you may not succeed, but you may not necessarily have a successful career. If you enter the legal profession to fight the continuing fight for the liberties of the poor and infringements of their dignity, you will have a much more meaningful and exciting career and you will succeed.”

About the biggest threat to South Africa’s hard- earned democracy, Judge Desai said: “The biggest threat to democracy is not only here but throughout the world, and it has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. It’s the growing chasm between the rich and the poor; the growing inequality in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. It must lead to conflict and the only resolution appears to be, to me certainly, is that we must stand up and talk about it openly and frankly and talk about possible alternatives without fear of being intimidated.

“If we were to imagine a better society it was imperative that the imbalances in the world be addressed,” he said. “If we don’t, democracy as we know it will fail.”

Judge Siraj Desai says the biggest threat to democracy in South Africa and around the world is the growing chasm between the rich and the poor.

After more than 25 years since democracy, Judge Desai was asked his views on what the future held for South Africa’s youth.

“Twenty-five years is a long period. I’ve been a judge for 25 years, but 25 years is a moment in history and we haven’t been able to address many of the problems we inherited. It has only been exacerbated by the corruption and other shenanigans. Ultimately, we must get together as a nation and continue the process, the rehabilitation from an unfortunate past; a past extends over 300 years.”

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Desai was born in Salt River, matriculated from Trafalgar High and, due to the apartheid-era Separate Universities Act, was forced to study at the University of Durban Westville, which was initially established for Indian students. It is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“The government put us there – a Struggle institution. It was a big mistake they made. They didn’t realise, first, we were a generation in protest; second, Durban was the most exciting place to be in the early 1970s.

“Steve Biko was there, Pravin Gordhan was, Saths Cooper was there, Rick Turner, who was shot and killed, was there. Those were my contemporaries in Durban.

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“If you must ask me what inspired me the most, I’ll say my contemporaries. You see, my contemporaries, my friends and colleagues with whom I shared so much, shaped my thinking and shared my passion for the development of a free South Africa.

“Despite the fact that we may not have been of one colour, my generation was an outstanding generation. Now that I’ve retired from the bench I get messages from people I haven’t seen for 40 years because of the old bonds that stayed; bonds forged in the midst of struggle are bonds not easily severed.

“I was an article clerk first with Essa Moosa and then Dullah Omar (Struggle lawyers) from 1976 onwards. Those were also two men from whom I learnt a lot. But I also had the opportunity in the first three years of my practice to work with the late Ben Kies (political activist and theorist who died in 1979.)”

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Judge Siraj Desai (white pants) with other students
Judge Siraj Desai on hajj in Mecca

As a lawyer, he traversed the country for roughly 15 years and dealt with cases in places such as Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Kimberley, Beaufort West. His clients were the poor, the “underdog” and anti-apartheid activists such as United Democratic Front co-founder Allan Boesak, and a member of the Pan Africanist Congress armed wing who were involved in the St James Church massacre in which 11 worshippers were killed.

“I never thought of becoming a judge, because all the years I was an advocate attorney there was no prospect of any person of colour ever becoming a judge,” he said.

This changed when then justice minister, the late Dullah Omar, convinced him that there were no people of colour on the Bench.

“He said, ‘Look here, we need to change the colour of the Bench. You are obviously one of the more experienced advocates of colour around.’ I agreed to be nominated and then I became a judge. I have the privilege of having a certificate appointing me as judge signed by Nelson Mandela himself. When I finally became a judge, I was in practice for 19 years, continuously in courts. So, ek was getamat in die ding (So, I knew this thing by heart).”

Cases the father of three presided over included the Najwa Dirks murder trial, the Henri van Breda murder case, and the rape and murder case of Valencia Farmer.

Convicting those who were guilty was easy, but he had great difficulty when making rulings such as evictions.

Highlights of his life included the day he married, and the day he became a judge. His lifetime passion is to ensure justice for District Six residents forcibly removed from the area under apartheid’s dreaded Group Areas Act.

Desai said that despite a lot of political posturing about the issue, he was certain people would return to the area they still called home.

“I think we must guard District Six against private developers. Developments would have been there long ago had it not been for the sustained campaigns against development, and I will continue to watch this process with an eagle eye,” he said.

About why he decided to enter the legal profession, he said: “Actually, teaching was my first passion. I took two options – one of becoming a teacher or a lawyer. It was premised on the same political background and the fact that one could mould the mind of the generation as a teacher and teach, or practice law to fight effectively for those who were victims of apartheid. I actually majored in English.”

Judge Siraj Desai with his children Tariq, Aniqah, and Azhar.

Cape Argus

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