Item 1530 - Speech by Mr N R Mandela at the banquet of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa at the Sheraton Hotel

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ZA COM MR-S-1530


Speech by Mr N R Mandela at the banquet of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa at the Sheraton Hotel


  • 2000-07-28 (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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Banquet of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa

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  • English

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I speak to you tonight with very mixed feelings. At the outset I must record the sadness which I know you all share with me in one respect. This is that Chief Justice Mahomed should not be here with us. I have recently joined with others to pay tribute to him at a gathering here in Pretoria: to him as our Chief Justice, as a judge, as an advocate and as a person. I understand his passing will be marked in subsequent events this evening too. It would however be wrong for me not to mark what we have lost in the death of that brilliant lawyer and campaigner for human rights.
But mingled with this sadness, I share with you, I am sure, great pride and pleasure in the focus of this evening. This is to celebrate the contribution of the South African Bar to the search for justice in this country, and to honour particular contributions in that process,
Tonight I think back over some 60 years. I passed the final examination for my BA degree at the end of 1942. I went on to study at Wits, and then embarked on my career as a trial lawyer and in the liberation struggle. I was privileged to work closely with some of South Africa's finest advocates. Amongst the dead I would mention are Bram Fischer, Isle Maisels, Rex Welsh, Vernon Berrange and Charlie Nicholas. Amongst the living are some present tonight, whom I shall not embarrass, but two whose embarrassment I must risk are Sydney and Felicia Kentridge.
My perspective is personal, and it goes back some 41 years now to the brilliance and courage of Sydney Kentridge which 1 witnessed day after day in the Old Synagogue here in Pretoria. This was in the Treason Trial in which I was one of a large number of accused, appearing in a special criminal court convened for that purpose by the Minister of Justice, Sydney Kentridge would be the first to say that he was one of a team of great advocates. Even so, his brilliance shone out and with it, the promise of the career to come. His manner was always understated, controlled and relentlessly rational, His cross- examination was devastating. Of the private person there were few glimpses. Perhaps the most human I saw him was only at the very end of the proceedings, which took two years. Molly Fischer wrote later to her daughters, Ruth and Ilse, how Kentridge, as she described him,
'the staid soft-spoken - oh so correct lawyer - danced a little jig and was heard to use bad words. Later he put some ice down Parkington's shirt and the champagne cork in his own ear". Not long after, following the Rivonia trial, I went to prison to serve a life sentence. Reports reached me there over the years about the Kentridges and their continuing role in law in South Africa. Sydney appeared in trials and inquests which have left their mark on the legal and social history of this country. He achieved the highest professional success in this country, and thereafter in the United Kingdom. Last year he received the remarkable honour of being knighted by the Queen: indeed an occasion to celebrate but without, I hope this time, a champagne cork in the ear I
Felicia was also admitted to practise at the Bar, and together with Arthur Chaskalson, Geoff Budlender and Professor Jack Greenberg of Columbia University set up the Legal Resources Centre. This remarkable institution perhaps did more than any other in the 1970's and 1980's to challenge executive abuses, and to be a legal voice for the voiceless. Its work continues in important ways today, and Felicia herself continues to play an important role within it. South Africa owes much to her for her vision and her commitment to this cause.
I believe I have spoken for long enough, particularly before judges. On the last occasion I can recall doing so in Pretoria, I received a life sentence. That at my present age is perhaps less intimidating. Nonetheless it is time for me to measure my words.
In conclusion I have this to say. The legal profession and the judiciary in South Africa have no perfect past. There have been failures and lost opportunities, institutional and individual. But it is also true that there have been women and men among South Africa's lawyers, including its judges and advocates, who have been committed to the rule of law and to the achievement of a constitutional democracy. Some have paid a high price for this.
I believe that people of this kind should be honoured and I am proud to join you tonight to do so. The Bar and the Bench are institutions which are not beyond criticism, but criticism serves no purpose if it is purely destructive and does not acknowledge the dedicated contributions which have been made. These have been even at the worst times in our history.
I am glad to hear of the Bar's own attempts to transform its membership and in particular to advance legal education; I am especially glad to hear of the creation tonight of the Pius Langa scholarships named after the illustrious Deputy President of our Constitution& Court and Chancellor of the University of Natal. I congratulate the Nedcor foundation for its lead in making both those scholarships and the inauguration of the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award for service to law in Southern African possible.
Another president ended his life in exile from his home in this city nearly a century ago. Shortly before he died, he said:
"Take the best things out of your past and upon them build your future". That applies too to lawyers in South Africa and especially to the Bench and the Bar. There are challenges to overcome and matters to set right, but there are also vital legacies for our constitutional democracy. The Bar is an important institution in civil society which deserves to be strengthened. I know from my own life as a lawyer that it can offer access to justice.
I wish you all well in that endeavour,

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Acquisition method: Hardcopy ; Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation. Accessioned on 03/03/2010 by Zintle Bambata




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