Lawyers Reflect on
'Ties that Bind' South Africa, U.S.
By Allison Thompson
& Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society, civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston once said. The half-day conference on "Human Rights and the Question of Race: Reflections from South Africa and the United States" at UConn on April 30 was an opportunity to hear from a half-dozen lawyers who chose to be social engineers.
Two panels of prominent human rights and civil rights lawyers from South Africa and the United States reflected on the parallels between race and racism and law and lawyers in the two countries. The panels were moderated by Nell Jessup Newton, dean of law. John Brittain, dean of Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, gave closing remarks.
"There are ties that bind black Africans in South Africa and African Americans," said Dumisa Ntsebeza, former head of the investigative unit of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who is currently a visiting distinguished professor at UConn. "Much of what is said about the struggle for human rights in South Africa can be said about the struggle for civil rights in America: it involved the struggle for basic rights and freedoms. In both countries, progressive lawyers made a major impact in the development of constitutional rights for black people."
George Bizos, a leading human rights lawyer, now serving with the Legal Resources Center in South Africa, said the United States had a significant influence on the struggle in his country: "We as lawyers followed the example of many of your lawyers and what they were doing, especially in the 1950s."
He said the year 1948 was full of irony for many South Africans: while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being debated in the United Nations, the Nationalist Party - Nazi sympathizers - became the government of South Africa. The regime officially instituted apartheid, a policy of separation of races that denied basic freedoms and democratic rights to the non-white majority.
"While your lawyers were preparing Brown v. Topeka, we took the opposite direction," he said. In 1953, the apartheid regime, which was in power from 1948 until 1994, implemented the Bantu Education Act, legislation denying African people in South Africa an education that would enable them to become more than "hewers of wood and drawers of water."
Bizos drew other parallels with the United States, likening the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. in 1955-56 to the defiance campaign in South Africa in 1952-53, during which thousands were imprisoned for peacefully refusing to obey unjust apartheid laws.
The legal system was full of paradoxes, however, he said, and that opened up opportunities for lawyers concerned about injustice to exploit the loopholes.
"South Africa was a totalitarian state for the vast majority of people of South Africa, the indigenous people, but the few million whites were democratic for themselves - ourselves," said Bizos, who is white. "They wanted an independent judiciary, due process, and - if a loved one died - an inquest to determine whether anyone was at fault. There was a small group of lawyers, both black and white, that said 'we must take advantage of this space given to us'."
These lawyers met with some successes in the courtroom. Even when there was a conviction, as when Nelson Mandela was jailed for life for opposing apartheid, it was clear that the anti-apartheid movement would not be destroyed. Mandela "became a symbol that you cannot put down the human spirit," Bizos said.
Wycliffe Mlungisi Tsotsi, a black South African who began practicing as an attorney in 1950, was one of those who demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit when he ran afoul of the authorities for his outspoken opposition to apartheid.
"Escape, arrest, detention, deportation - I have experienced all of these in my long fight for democracy and human rights in South Africa," he said.
Although his detention in 1964 was "the bitterest experience" of his life, Tsotsi remained undaunted. He refused to eat the food he was offered and persuaded a guard to smuggle a newspaper to him each week.
Clement Temba Sangoni, another of the small group of black lawyers in South Africa under apartheid, founded a legal firm that took on political cases. Yet, like others who stood up against the regime, he was targeted for his work.
"Our offices were broken into time and again," he said.
Although South Africa now has a new constitution that is building a culture of human rights, Sangoni noted that "the history of our struggle is a long one, that began long before apartheid."
Oliver Hill, a longtime civil rights lawyer who was speaking on the eve of his 95th birthday, observed that the civil rights struggle in America also goes back a long way.
The civil rights movement here is generally traced to the 1960s or 1950s, said Hill, an African American, who is best known for his role in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision striking down segregated schools. Yet the struggle began in the 17th century, he said.
When, for example, three indentured servants, an Irishman, a Scotsman and an African, escaped and were captured, the two white men were put in the stocks, the black man given 50 lashes. "From that period on to the present day," he said, "punishment for Negroes for doing the same thing a white criminal did is much greater."
Nathaniel Jones, a black Appeal Court judge for the Sixth Circuit, said much of his work as general counsel for the NAACP during the 1970s focused on trying to implement the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection for all under the law.
During the 1980s, he traveled to South Africa to observe treason trials. He was encouraged to discover that "lessons from the American civil rights struggle were being imported into legal decisions in the struggle in South Africa."
Yet on his return to the United States, he met with a backlash against the civil rights movement. "That has created a restraint on the implementation of civil rights that South Africa looked to us with favor for having achieved," Jones said. "Unless we in the United States can revive a sensitive judiciary, the faith people have in the law will be diminished and we'll be coming to South Africa to ask your advice."
Louis Pollak, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and former dean of Yale Law School, was an observer at the 1977 inquest of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, who died in detention. Pollak, who is white, described the inquest, during which three weeks' of testimony about atrocities by the security forces led to a three-minute decision that "there is no one to blame," as one of the most depressing experiences of his life. At UConn on April 30, he met George Bizos, who represented Biko's family at the inquest, for the first time in 25 years.
The conference was organized by the UNESCO Chair and Institute of Comparative Human Rights, in conjunction with the University of Richmond.