Item 1388 - Address by Nelson Mandela at the Fourteenth International Conference of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law, 3 December 2000

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ZA COM MR-S-1388


Address by Nelson Mandela at the Fourteenth International Conference of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law, 3 December 2000


  • 2000-12-03 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law conference on Human Rights and the Administration of Criminal Justice, Sandton, Johannesburg, 3 - 7 December 2000

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  • English

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Esteemed Jurists

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

This conference on human rights and the administration of criminal justice could not have come at a more opportune and fitting time for us here in South Africa.

We understand this to be the first time that the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law is holding its annual conference in Africa. While we take this opportunity to welcome the Society and its esteemed members to our shores, we at the same time thank them for their presence here. It coincides with a moment in our own societal development where we are intensely debating exactly those themes this conference will be addressing.

When South Africa made the transition from apartheid to democracy and we negotiated the form and substance of the new political order, we placed the entrenchment of constitutionalism and human rights at the centre of our concerns. Apartheid was such a tyrannical abuse of law that we had to ensure, as far as is humanly possible, that no citizen or group of citizens would ever again be subjected to such gross misuse of the law.

As you as international jurists are no doubt aware, apartheid infamously distinguished Itself in the manner that virtually every aspect of the lives of its citizens were governed by law, and inherently discriminatory laws at that.

Where and how, for example, people were born, lived, worked, schooled, played, studied, married, received health treatment, were remunerated, traveled, died and were buried were all in one way or the other determined by law or regulation. The law was used not to protect citizens but, particularly in the case of black people, to subject them and to hound them. Law became the instrument for the exercise of the brutality of the state towards the majority of the population.

This abuse of law did not only apply as explicit or administrative law. The administration of criminal law was from the beginning of the Union of South Africa perverted by the underlying racial assumptions of dominant society and of the political order. Increasingly and even more particularly in the apartheid era criminal law became explicit and deliberate mechanisms for the political pursuits of racial rule.

In many respects South Africa became a lawless state with its entire system of justice grievously perverted. For although there were many men and women within the system who tried to perform their functions with integrity, all were obliged to respect and apply unjust laws. Not even judges of the Supreme Court had the right to challenge patently unjust laws. Theirs was to apply the law: not to question its legality or justice. It was against that experience that we had to construct our new system of justice in a democratic South Africa.

It is not for me to present to such an august gathering of jurists an analysis or our legal system. There are sufficient numbers of qualified South Africans and scholars in South Africa to do that.

Our Constitution is our supreme law and at the heart of the Constitution stands a Bill of Rights that, amongst others, ensure that the citizen is protected against abuse by the state.

The Constitutional Court together with such other constitutionally created organs as the office of the Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission and others had been established in terms of the provisions of the Constitution to safeguard those rights.

An essential element of the spirit and practice of entrenched rights and the supremacy of the Constitution is fair administration of criminal law and the criminal justice system.

The memory of how criminal law was abused to arbitrarily hound people lives too vividly for us ever to could have contemplated a cavalier approach to these aspects of law.

The social fabric of post-minority rule South Africa carries heavy scars from the distortions and perversions of apartheid. That deliberate and systematic abuse of the law we spoke of could not but sear all, victims and perpetrators. The institutionalised encouragement and promotion of lawlessness as we described could not but have bred a deep moral malaise in society. Where law had been unapologetically and deliberately abused, respect for law was fundamentally eroded.

Other socio-economic factors enter into the equation. Massive poverty, with the dividing lines between privileged and poor running mostly along historical racial lines, created further conditions conducive to social pathology. The state of the inherited economy was such that unemployment was a major social problem. The liberalisation of all aspects of society also had its inevitable downsides as not all cherished these freedoms but many in turn abused them for criminal and illegal purposes.

While we have been making steady progress in the combat of crime, we would be the first to acknowledge that the level of crime remains unacceptably high. As always it remains the poor and the vulnerable who suffer most under these social scourges although the assessment of newsworthiness often results in crime against the more privileged receiving greater coverage. The population generally have become weary of crime and as a result there has been increased questioning of the efficacy and validity of a system of criminal law that is based on a respect for the human rights of all, including those who have to be presumed innocent until the opposite is proved.

It is the obligation of a state, a democratic state, to protect its citizens not only against the abuse of state power but also against abuses by fellow citizens. One of the founding pledges of the liberation struggle in this country, for example, was to create a society in which there would be safety and security for all. In a sense what we are facing in our current debates is how to effectively step up the fight against crime through tightening up the measures of our criminal law system without stepping back from our underlying human rights culture.

It is at this moment that you gather here in our country to debate exactly those kinds of themes and subjects. I am certain that other countries in the world must be battling similar challenges. I know that these are matters of fundamental concern to all countries on the African continent where you now, for the first time ever, hold your conference. I have no doubt that your presence here will greatly assist us in our domestic and continental quests for justice.

I thank you.

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Acquisition method: From website ; Source: Accessioned on 01/02/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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