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Retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe’s book about visiting past for lessons to make SA, world better place

Retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe with personal assistant of 20 years, Illonka Etsebeth. Picture: Supplied

Retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe with personal assistant of 20 years, Illonka Etsebeth. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 21, 2022


Pretoria - When you work together for more than two decades, it becomes like a well-oiled machine.

It is such kind of a union that has resulted in retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe launching his book, Rich Pickings out of the Past. While the judge wrote the book, his right-hand person all along was his personal assistant, Ilonka Etsebeth, who made sure that things ran smoothly.

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“I am so proud to be part of this book and the journey from beginning to end,” Etsebeth said.

The former Gauteng Division of the High Court President for many years before his retirement, Judge Ngoepe is currently serving as the Tax Ombusdman. His passion other than the law, writing, became a reality when his book saw the light of day. It is a reflection on his past.

Speaking to the Pretoria News, Judge Ngoepe said a few factors inspired him to write the book.

“A lot of people urged me to do so, although they wanted me write a biography, which I did not want to do. I did not want to write purely about my life and this book is therefore not a biography; it is what is known as an autoethnography.

“I write about events and experiences not only of and about myself, but of other people as well, and apply these events and experiences to broader social, and other issues at both the micro and macro levels; in a politically neutral manner.”

The judge said the purpose of the book was, as the title indicated, to invite all, through various themes, to visit the past and get out of it some rich lessons to make the country and, indeed, the world a better place.

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“The book tries to address fundamental causes of our challenges, and not just symptoms. I served for many years, both in the country and outside, in various capacities. The book is a rich intersection of these varied experiences.”

Judge Ngoepe said writing a book had not been long on the cards. “It is difficult to tell how long it took to write it, given the fact that there were some forced interruptions. But it perhaps took about three years to present the final version to the publishers.”

His message to be conveyed by the book is that there is a need to address our challenges, such as poverty, crime, corruption, unemployment, moral regeneration and to save our hard-earned democracy.

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Etsebeth is, meanwhile, equally proud of the book – and Judge Ngoepe said her assistance was invaluable.

“Ilonka has been my PA for more than 20 years. It is a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. I have become dependent on Ilonka. She is almost a family member.”

The judge said Etsebeth assisted with the typing of the manuscript, which at times would be too difficult to read and follow because it was written in bits and pieces over some time.

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“At times, because of the haste in which I would have written in order to capture an idea before it escaped, I would not be able to read my own handwriting, and she would!

“On occasion, because we had worked together from the first day I was Judge President until I retired after about 14 years, Ilonka would refresh my memory on the details of some of the relevant past events.”

Judge Ngoepe has donated his entire royalties from the book to Diabetes South Africa.

“My wife and I experienced devastating personal tragedies, including the murder of our 4-year-old granddaughter, followed by the death of our eldest daughter (the child’s mother) who was a lawyer, as well as our son. We lost both of them at the young age of 41 and 40, respectively, to diabetes.”

Judge Ngoepe said the book, however, did not deal with personal tragedies. “One of the messages it has for people is how to deal with ordinary challenges and obstacles in life, such as one’s failures.

“For example, it warns against finding scapegoats for one’s failures, instead of first being introspective and learning from one’s failures.”

He said it also warned against adopting a defeatist attitude. Each point is underpinned by reference to actual facts; the book is therefore not fiction.

Pretoria News