Citizen. Speak. Amplify.

Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke in conversation with Khadija Patel

Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke reflects on youth, leadership and the act of liberation in his recently published memoir, My Own Liberator.

We are in a very sensitive moment in our democracy. There seems to be a disconnect between the older generation and the younger generation, and younger people feel like older people just don’t get their struggle. And you, coming from a history of youth activism yourself, when you see this now, considering your own history. How do you respond?

I’ve written a little about this in the book and you see from the title “My Own Liberator”, it’s a book that really seeks to remind the youth of personal and public agency. To say that if you have a set of revolutionary ideals, they must be matched by appropriate action to achieve those goals. It’s insufficient to mouth them because in the last instance of course you are your own liberator. You are responsible for ensuring that your circumstances change. When I wrote the book and chose the title, the situation was not as it is [now] but it anticipates a lot of complexities that we’ve run into. I think there is a disconnect between the struggle that we carried, validated over centuries, let alone the last hundred years of the African National Congress and suddenly the ideals, objectives, the purpose is dithering, it seems to be lost. In other words there appears to be that incumbency has flown out the ideals of our broader struggle. And struggle was never in a vacuum.

In the book, I write about increasing talk on the left and behaviour on the right.You find our leaders profess to be left-leaning and they behave right-leaning. You look at their attitude on patriarchy, on violence against women as examples. Their attitude on meaningful access to quality education, their attitudes to real and genuine steps to destroy poverty and inequality, because if we were as serious as we should be, our conduct would have been entirely different. Issues like food security would have been right in the middle of it, and reduced commoditisation of food. And the commoditisation of education to the extent that it has happened.

What I’m saying is that incumbency undermines substantially the goals of our revolution.

In serious terms you have to ask yourself what did Thuli Madonsela do that is wrong or what did Moseneke do that is wrong, or we can go on, we can point out to a number of different activists in different terrains. They’ve run away. Those in power have just moved away from where they ought to be. I think that’s the assessment. And without young people articulating it the way I do, and I think many do it at any rate, the social distance has increased substantially, even in relation to bearers of the ideas of the revolution, of radical change.

How do we breach those distances? Are we able to, or are we too far gone?

You’re probably closer to young people. I’ve been an ivory tower judge and doing my bit because of my innate understanding. I was born and grew up in the revolution, so almost my instinctive responses were to do the right thing, to do good, to pull up government to do what they have to do. It is summarised in part in the constitution. As a lawyer, I have to look at that source and say. Here is the source, you have departed from that and I have to keep you to this. So is this convenient. But the truth of the matter is that faulty transition we had could have been brought to near perfection by very dedicated office bearers and wielders of public power. You and I know it never happened.

So, about #FeesMustFall?

The claim is valid. Some of the methods have been highly questionable because they’ve been trampling on the rights of other young people who are equally concerned. So there is a contestation around that area. And secondly, of course, the difficulty of the duty of protecting institutions that exist, that is the infrastructure. Because need it in order to change the contents.

So, are you saying the students’ protest has been stalled by a failure of tactics?

Yes there’s been a failure of tactics. I think [former Constitutional Court judge] Zak Yacoob, only this morning, my friend, colleague and comrade, he was making the point only this morning about a failure of tactics. So yes there has been a failure of tactics. The failure is not absolute. It is quite material. There is no question that you’re entitled to protest and ought to protest. And on my theory, if you are your own liberator, the responsibility sits with you to challenge unfairness and inequality. To speak truth to power. So the book is really about that, it’s telling young people, you don’t sit back and look because you did for 21/22 years. Tactics could have been better, should be better and I agree entirely with Zak Yacoob we can’t maintain the moral high ground with poor tactics. Sometimes good causes are endangered by impermissible tactics or poor tactics. And vice versa too.

But then there’s also a question of the tactics of university management and government?

It’s all relative but it’s true that there’s failure of tactics on all sides. Currently there’s no proper counterpart on the side of government. It’s difficult to find who to engage, for reasons that you know. Pravin is in the one corner, and Blade is in the other, and maybe the president is in another corner and Jeff Radebe in another corner. So you can’t resolve this demand only through universities. But at the same time, you can’t protect university terrain without some level of security, and it has been quite a difficult thing. As you know my involvement and connection to Wits – it has not been easy. You can see of the 37, 000 students, there are maybe 2, 000 active protesters. Thirty five thousand of them don’t want much more than acknowledging the claim and just going on with their lives. So if you are in some form of authority in the university, your challenge is, how do you make sure the 35, 000 can have access, however defective the access is?

I find it quite significant that when we try to engage student leaders on that, the fact that many of their peers want to continue with the academic programme, there seems to be this dogged determinism to continue because they feel that we are at a turning point in our society. If they abandon the protest now, it is all for nothing. So how do we engage that?

By finding a real and true counterparty in the state to make the kind of undertakings that would get us to universal access to quality education and to decolonise education. We can debate what that means at some other time because that goes to content. And then the state has a duty to formulate a plan whether now or over time will progressively realise access to education – to use the language of the constitution – subject to available resources. This means this is a call for the state to reprioritise, to begin to focus on, what really matters and that’s what the young people have raised so but you can’t have a solution with management only so I think you need a state counterpart that’s dependable and that can carry the undertakings. They still have to go to parliament, they still have to go to wherever and bring about laws and get Pravin and other people to reprioritise budgets in ways that don’t pander to the interests of the political and economic elite but to the interests of the people.

Do you see us having the political will? All it takes is political will, right?

All it takes is political will and nobody else can resolve that if you have an absentee government almost. The demands might be put to somebody.

Yes but in some ways, government is only present in its manifestation in the police?

That’s sad. Yes that’s sad and the police can’t, and we know this from apartheid, they can never wrap up any undertakings, they can never concede to legitimate and progressive demands. They cannot. On my take, you have to find government counterparts if this thing is not to get down to an outright revolution we have to find government counterparts who understand the enormity and the importance of the claim. It’s a rejection of the way governance has gone on up to now. This is a rerun of 1976 in just a little different context, and young people tend to see it to the conscience of society.

That’s the beautiful thing, I think, of who we are as a people. Young people are always leading us.

Yes, in my generation so it was. In ten years, ’76 it was that generation, in ’86 it was another generation rising and now look where we are. In particular, you found the youth league faltering so the site of progressive contestation moving to somewhere else. It was absent where it ordinarily should have been. If we don’t find a counterparty, a dependable counterparty, I think we’re in a big crisis. You see, let me tell you, the big announcement that Moseneke was going to preside over the General Assembly [at Wits]. The pledge got the university to cross over the line and admit the legitimacy of the student’s demands and to commit to go together and make the demand from the state. All of those things were in place. They even asked, comrade chancellor will you march with us. I said yes, I will march. Then at 3, 4 am they changed their minds and hiked up the demands and demands that the university could not meet and here was the defect in the plan. There was no government counterpart, it was the university students who tried to make common cause on things they themselves or the university alone could not deliver. In a sense it would have been fine to have some peace, a truce but we would not have been… remember we managed to get the police off the campus, we had this thing that was going to show consensus within the university community but the promise of access.

It does also speak to a level of mistrust, don’t you think, between the management elites, student leadership and then, in part, government. There just seems to be mistrust which is dogging progress here?

It’s true. And sad in many ways. I saw clips of how Adam [Habib] was asked to leave the meeting [at the church]. There is mistrust and hatred. I’ve worked with Adam for years now and I think his heart is in the right place. I think he would really like to achieve outcomes that are credible and good. He’s squeezed hard by very difficult factors. The students themselves, remember, are not monolithic.

Yes, and I think this is one of the greatest stumbling blocks.

You know the conflict amongst themselves. And how the SRCs have been undermined. So SRCs, militant they can be militant as they like to be. The truth is they can bring in, corral and bring in everybody. And if they did, some small splinter group will come and say, who are you speaking for, in a revolution we are all equal, there are no leaders here. So their ideological strengths are many. At least for those of us who have emerged and come from struggle and revolutionary background whose strengths are many. There’s unity movement there, there is fundamentalists. Then you have EFF, you have PASMA.

Isn’t it significant for you that we’re seeing a resurgence of a radical black consciousness? Do you think it’s significant that in this moment of history, we’re seeing a resurgence?

Yes, because solutions that were premised on non-racialism, on cohesion, on diversity, have not succeeded to overcome privilege and class. And people harken back to the original positions, so to speak. If the transformation was rigorous and honest and real and it really touched lives of people, the narrative of cohesion and diversity would have stuck much much more. But it’s faltering because people perceive outright transformational failure and some think it’s prompted by current incumbency. And therefore in some ways the government becomes the target.

You touched a little bit on decolonising our institutions and of course, there’s not a great consensus on what that means. You come from a legal field; there are some rumblings amongst young activists from the law school that say the whole law system in SA needs to be decolonised. How do you respond to that as someone who has experience in the field?

I think it’s a legitimate conversation to have. In varying degrees we have pronounced on issues in a way that hopefully moves and gravitates towards decolonisation, greater fairness, but at a social level. So if you go and look at the judgments of the courts we would find uniformity so it would be amazing if it were so. So there are judgements they resonate with – if you go and look at what Zak Yacoob has written over the years or what I’ve written over the years or what Albie Sachs has written over the years, I think you’ll struggle. You can add a few other people, Chaskalson, Yvonne Makgoro, to a varying degree. You’re going to struggle to castigate them as not being committed, truly committed.

But you find also a fair chunk of judges who came from the past and some have been appointed now but have never espoused radical notions of change in society. And many South Africans are comfortable with the mollycoddling, the soft and no big changes too quickly, please only give us what we’re comfortable with, keep out all the other things that we don’t know of here or don’t like. So there will be jurisprudence that still persists that is questionable, and there will be jurisprudence that is admired even around the world for its cutting end and its awareness about the need for radical change as equalising power relations within a very troubled world. So, the answer is half and half. Yes, a lot of work has to be done to have the judiciary completely aligned to our objectives. Those objectives one must quickly say, the bare minimum programme of action is the constitution. That’s the minimum and there’ll be people who will be more radical than that and there’ll be many who’ll think the constitution is radical. But our judges have done very well in that situation. There are others who have basically stayed the course as they understand it.

My final question is about the act of actually writing the memoir. Tell us, what were the kind of feelings you grappled with as you put words to your life?

At one level it’s uncomplicated, it’s storytelling. But I told myself I must come down from the mountain. I must come out of the ivory tower and be a regular human being reporting on lived experiences. So that is the first thing and I kept shaking my head. Also because I wrote it over the last four years, side-by-side some very important judgments I was writing also. So I needed to say now I’m on the mountaintop trying to lay down the law or inspired by the creator or somebody to be able to hand down something that is worthwhile. And then other times this was no attempt to be prophetic, to be clever. That’s the first thing that I tried. And the second thing, and I hoped it to be authentic, it would be the young boy growing up in the township.

Is there any fear of putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable to the public? The act of writing a memoir is to make yourself vulnerable?

Very vulnerable. And I’ve been thankful, grateful how welcoming the public has been. It’s been a massive relief. Because if you go out there and say, for example I tell the story of my upbringing as a child and the story of my going to Robben Island, people will say so what, why must we hear this why is it relevant, why is it important? People will just throw it in the dustbin of book writing and people seem to be really liking it. I see it’s be trending for the last two to three days.

My hope is that those who read it, it will help them and become your own liberator. And help collectively for all of us to become liberated. So somehow it’s a call for all of us to become liberators again as though we never did it. So really it’s an invitation to action to young people. And they like it, it resonates with them and it’s in line with what you’ve been asking me, what happened? It didn’t quite happen.

I went to Ferial Haffejee’s book launch and all the young people stood and said to the older generation there, that included me: “your generation is so arrogant, you think you’ve done us a favour and you have freed us. You have actually not done it.” And the last chapter I ask, was it all in vain because i’m also agonising over the exact same thing. I’ve put in so much of whatever I have, even my adult life I’ve tried, and I sit back and say we still have a revolt in our hands by our children. Have you done enough? The answer must surely be no. But I gave it my best shot and I’m urging them to go out there, and not to outsource the duty to change their circumstances.

Dikgang Moseneke’s memoir, My Own Liberator, is available in bookstores now.

Featured image via GovernmentZA on Flickr

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