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Judge Desai retires after distinguished career

Western Cape Judge Siraj Desai won’t be returning to his office in the new year. Picture: Cindy Waxa African News Agency (ANA)

Western Cape Judge Siraj Desai won’t be returning to his office in the new year. Picture: Cindy Waxa African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 13, 2020

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Cape Town - Western Cape High Court Judge Siraj Desai lowered his gavel for the last time when court adjourned on Friday.

Desai said growing up in Salt River in the 1950s, he never would have dreamt of ever being on the bench of any court.

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“January, I will be 70. You reach the age of 70 and you have to retire ... The court adjourned on Friday and the court reopens in January so effectively I have finished my term as a judge.”

Desai became a judge on July 1, 1995, and prior to that, he was an advocate and an attorney.

He said: “I started my career in 1976 as an articled clerk and worked for Dullah Omar ... I was a professional assistant on his staff in the 1970s.”

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His achievements in and out of the courtroom are plenty, but not many of them are well-documented and publicised, an aspect of his career Desai appreciates. He has achieved many things, using his judicial platform as a base to do good in society and especially in Salt River and surrounds.

Desai said: “When I was an attorney and also an advocate, I chaired the Woodstock Civic Association and I fought and supported the campaigns to save the land in District 6 for restitution purposes.”

What many might not know is that his advocacy for human rights and freedoms extend beyond the High Court bench.

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“For most of my time on the bench, I have been head of the National Council of Correctional Services which deals with the release of lifers and prison policy. I sat on the board of the Foundation for Human Rights for 25 years, I helped create many other institutions in society and I still play a role in many.”

It was unthinkable that when Desai was growing up he would in any shape or form be part of shaping the judiciary.

He said: “In those days it was not simply a class thing, all the judges were white, and we never really thought of that changing in the immediate future.

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“Remember, in those days, not only the High Court, the lower courts (judges) were white ... so it was a far cry from the social reality of living in Salt River. You would not have anticipated the changes to come about and for the changes to be so dramatic.”

During his tenure, Desai has often been in the media spotlight. His judgements in some of Cape Town’s most-talked about criminal matters and even cases of local and political importance have often seen him under the glare of the public eye.

Desai said that the murder trial of Najwa Dirk was a milestone. “That was a particularly difficult case because I come from the community from which both the accused and the victim came. I was one of them in a sense and it was justice being done by your peers to your peers.

“It was a difficult moment but I did not feel uncomfortable or intimidated in any way whatsoever and I knew that society would go along with the decisions I made.”

Desai has assisted with many charitable and social endeavours that never made the headlines. He was instrumental in securing the funding for the Blackpool Hall, built in Salt River and regularly engages with the Muslim Judicial Council as a guest speaker and supporter for charitable causes.

Now with his sights firmly set on his retirement, Desai joked that his first choice for spending his time would be to sit on every street corner in Cape Town singing Here Comes The Sun. Failing that, he said he is considering numerous offers from various groupings but has yet to make up his mind.

He is certain that there is no future for him in politics.

“You remain a judge for life and there is a debate about whether a retired judge should be active in politics and I don’t want to cross the line on that ... but it doesn’t mean I won’t contribute to the political debate.”

Weekend Argus

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