PORT ELIZABETH - The dark days and the injustice of the apartheid regime in South Africa shaped the career of respected Eastern Cape jurist, Justice Dayalin Chetty who will retire this year after more than 20 years on the bench.
Judge Chetty, 65, revered by his colleagues and also known for his poetic use of language in his judgments, was the keynote speaker at a coffee morning hosted by BLC Attorney's in Port Elizabeth this week.
Not sensitive to anyone's political sentiment, he writes what he likes, he said in his opening remarks. With his clear love for languages, Chetty took up Latin as a subject during his high school years, before heading off to obtain his first degree in 1972 at the then "ethnic institution" the University of Durban.
According to Chetty, becoming a lawyer, and later a judge, including a stint as an acting judge at the Supreme Court of Appeal, was a natural consequence of his own life experiences.
"The law prescribed where I could live, where I could walk, which school I could attend. And all these factors I think contributed to the decision that I would become a lawyer."
Born in 1953, Chetty grew up in Schauderville, in Port Elizabeth's northern areas. When he embarked on his path to becoming a lawyer it was not without sacrifice bound by the circumstances of the time. Apartheid laws classified him as an Indian man and forced Chetty into having no choice but to study in Durban.
"When I got there, the first thing I did in hostel was to cry, because I had never been away from home." And it was his days at university that his political education began "because we started to question the very fact why we were there".
As a first act of protest, activist students at the time refused to use any of the university's facilities, except for the library and cafeteria. Chetty said that after six years and upon completion of his degree, as a sign of protest he, current Public Enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and others refused to be capped by the university.
After being admitted to the bar in 1979, Chetty received his first brief which was to have a profound effect on the direction his life would take. The brief involved a family from Colchester who had lived on land for generations and were served with an eviction order under the Group Areas Act.
"The entire proceedings were a farce because the decision to evict the family had already been taken and it was for the public consumption that there was some semblance of legality attached to the eviction."
Current Minister of Water and Sanitation Gugile Nkwinti was at one point detained by security police under a section of the emergency regulations of the time, and in seeking to have him released, former Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed was briefed to bring an application. "Here was another act of judicial activism. A full bench ordered his release because they hadn't followed the full procedure to justify detention of Gugile," said Chetty.
Fighting oppressive laws and seeking to defend those without a voice did not come without sacrifice. For 15 years Chetty would live outside his hometown of Port Elizabeth, only returning on weekends, leaving his wife Loshni to look after their family .
During the state of emergency in South Africa, Chetty would go on to live in Dordrecht, far inland and to the north of PE. It was there that he defended a group of people who had been caught on the way to Lesotho en route for military training.
At the time, his junior attorney was Anton Lubowski who would later be murdered by the security police. During the case, another one of his junior attorneys was detained by the security branch police, so while Lubowski continued in Dordrecht, Chetty went to look for his colleague in Burgersdorp. However, the head of the prison at the time refused Chetty access to his junior. Chetty immediately sought to bring an application for the attorney's release but was met with an unsympathetic judge who was not interested in the legalities around the detention. The attorney spent the next six months in solitary confinement at Burgersdorp prison.
He rose to the bench in 1995 after he was offered an opportunity by a peer to serve as an acting judge in Cape Town, a moment he said that took him aback. The following year his appointment became permanent and it was then his judicial education began in earnest, learning from the leading legal minds in the country.
Chetty told reporters that while serving on the bench in Cape Town he wrote most of his judgments in Afrikaans, as a show of his versatility with languages.
Then, in 1998, Chetty had former President FW De Klerk as a litigant in his court. "I came face to face with the last architect of apartheid ... how was I to react? Well to a judiciary, he was a litigant coming to get divorced."
"Well, Mr De Klerk got into the witness box, took the oath in front of me and I said to myself: 'How times have changed.' "
The last major case Chetty presided over was the Christopher Panayiotou murder trial in which he sentenced the businessman to life imprisonment for the murder of his schoolteacher wife Jayde.
Chetty's career has spanned 47 years and his contribution is considered as instrumental in the nurturing and development of both civil and criminal law in South Africa.
And nearly half a century later, Chetty still writes his judgments using a pencil and a rubber and told reporters that he does not use technology, preferring to remain old school.
"Law is the business to which I have devoted my entire life," he said. "I've spent the last 47 years trying to learn it, still haven't accomplished it fully, but I think it's time I want to stop studying because I also need to relax and spend time with my family."
Chetty will officially leave the bench as a Port Elizabeth High Court Judge in September.
African News Agency/ANA