Skweyiya the 'father of public interest law'
Publish date: 16 April 2018
Issue Number: 769
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
Zola Skweyiya, former Minister and High Commissioner in London, who died last week at the age of 75, was a great and versatile legal mind, a selfless builder of institutions. He was also the brain and head of the ANC constitutional committee which produced policy options that underpinned the constitutional dispensation, notes an obituary by prominent ANC member Mathole Motshekga in the Sunday Tribune. He says throughout his life, Skweyiya wanted to inculcate revolutionary legal values and teach people to be selfless and versatile lawyers. At the height of apartheid, he was among the leaders who believed the struggle had reached a turning point and the ANC needed conscientious lawyers like Nelson Mandela, OR Tambo and Duma Nokwe. He also shared law books on Marxist legal theory and said he wanted comrades to use law as a weapon of the Struggle. Skweyiya saw the need to not only facilitate the formation of structures of progressive lawyers inside the country, but to orientate them to become providers of pro bono services to scores of youths charged with a variety of political offences during the 1985 and 1986 State of Emergency. ‘It was also through Skweyiya that I and JB Sibanyoni, former MPS and others formed the Democratic Lawyers Congress (DLC),’ writes Motshekga. ‘He was the mastermind who guided the DLC, which came together to form the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) in 1987, with the late Chief Justice, Pius Langa, as president and the late Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, and myself as deputy presidents.’ He argues Skweyiya could truthfully be portrayed as the father of public interest law in SA. ‘In his memory, progressive lawyers must rebuild the public interest law movement, community justice institutions and the paralegal movement to ensure that the poor have full access to justice,’ he says.
In another tribute in the Sunday Times it is recalled he represented the ANC at the Organisation of African Unity until 1985, when ANC president Oliver Tambo recalled him to Lusaka to set up and lead the ANC’s department of legal and constitutional affairs. A year later Tambo appointed him deputy chair of a high-powered constitutional committee chaired by Jack Simons and including top legal minds such as Kader Asmal and Albie Sachs. Its job was to come up with a Bill of Rights and set of constitutional guidelines that would set out the political rights South Africans could expect under an ANC government. It says he later became chair of the committee, a role for which he was well suited. He was hardworking, collegial, with an independent mind and no desire for the limelight. The report notes the committee played a major role in laying the groundwork for what was to become the post-apartheid Constitution. After returning from exile he joined the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape, where he organised a series of workshops on key constitutional questions dealing with land, socio-economic issues and the electoral system. The consensus, and his own preference, was for a mixed proportional representation/constituency system after the first elections in 1994, but the ANC never followed through on that.