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Judge Siraj Desai looks back on a lifetime of drama in court

Cape High court judge Siraj Desai retires in January after a distinguished career. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape High court judge Siraj Desai retires in January after a distinguished career. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 18, 2020


Cape Town - A lawyer has an important function, and ultimately you play a more meaningful role if you act for those who can’t afford legal services and if you advance the interests of the poor.

These were the words of advice to young lawyers from Western Cape Judge Siraj Desai as he retires just shy of his 70th birthday in January next year, the mandatory age for retirement.

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Judge Desai entered the legal profession in 1976, the year of the Student Uprising, after graduating from the University of Durban-Westville.

Recruited by his mentor, Struggle stalwart Dullah Omar, he spent a great deal of his career as an activist lawyer defending people for crimes of a political nature during apartheid.

“It was particularly challenging doing cases when the court was against you. The court had the bias of protecting white privilege and you had to fight against that bias,” Judge Desai said.

“As an advocate in a criminal trial the most beautiful words in English are ‘not guilty’ and ‘discharged’, there’s a particular high you get. In 1988 I defended two people for being in possession of ANC flags and after a long trial they were acquitted after the judge became confused about the colours of the flag and another flag,” he proudly reminisced.

Born and raised in Salt River, Judge Desai said it was difficult; they were not rich but he had good schooling.

He attended the Methodist Primary School and Trafalgar High School.

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“My schooling years are somewhat vague but my student years were exciting as that’s where I met many of the political leaders of our time,” he said.

Judge Desai has presided over some prominent cases in his time, including the rape and murder case of Valencia Farmer, the Taliep Petersen murder trial, and more recently the triple murder trial of Henri van Breda.

One particular case he highlighted was where he ordered a bullet be removed from an accused's leg for a ballistic report, despite the accused claiming a constitutional right to bodily protection.

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“Some judges said I was wrong but do I care? I do not care what judges say, the bullet taken out got the guy convicted of murder. It was not the law that triumphed but justice triumphed,” he said.

Eviction orders were painful for the judge, as he paid witness to this during the District Six forced removals.

“It’s painful for me for someone to lose his or her house, I lived in Salt River. In my earlier years I tried to duck that sort of case, even as an attorney. Federal auctioneers would send batches of eviction orders to me as a son of the soil to issue the summons. Sometimes I would never sign and take it to colleagues to sign instead,” Desai said.

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He said he was glad his long journey in the legal profession had now come to an end.

“It has been a long, exciting 25 years as a judge, and with my years as a lawyer it’s been more than 40-odd years inside and outside the courtroom. I will miss the excitement of the courtroom and the friendship on the bench. I express my thanks to the generation of students who inspired me, my family here and in Durban who supported me, my children and my late wife. They played a significant role in my life.”

He said he had no fixed plans. “I am currently sitting on a street corner and will continue till I find another job.”

Cape Times

Related Topics:

Crime and courts