Sounds of jubilation rang out at the University of Cape Town (UCT) over the weekend as young and not-so-young graduands were conferred with their degrees during Saturdayʼs graduation ceremonies, which include the faculties of Commerce, Humanites and Law.
The increased volume of ululating at the Faculty of Lawʼs graduation ceremony on Saturday evening was in response to the awarding of a Doctor of Law (honoris causa) to Justice Yvonne Mokgoro. Among many other accolades, she was the first black woman appointed to the Constitutional Court in post-apartheid South Africa, in 1994.
In his commendation, Professor Danwood Chirwa highlighted her “unwavering commitment to an imaginative and inclusive human rights jurisprudence”, citing four judgments in particular that have contributed to social justice in South Africa.
In 1998 Mokgoro ruled that the regulation precluding foreign citizens from being employed as teachers was unfair, and in 2004 she confirmed that the right to social security in the Constitution vests in everybody and that it was unreasonable and discriminatory to exclude permanent residents from social grants.
In 2000 she ruled that it is was not permissible for a bank to seize the property of defaulting debtors without a court order and later, in 2005, further cemented property rights when she declared that the sale in execution of a judgment debt of a person’s home without judicial oversight was unconstitutional.
Mokgoro’s career has embodied the philosophy of realising human rights through the justice system.
Her journey to the bench of the Constitutional Court began when she worked as a clerk in the Department of Justice of Bophuthatswana. She graduated from the University of Bophuthatswana with a BJuris (1982), and after the completion of her LLB in 1984 she was appointed maintenance officer and public prosecutor in the then Mmabatho magistratesʼ court.
She was subsequently awarded two LLMs, one from the University of Bophuthatswana in 1987 and one from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990.
Making the Constitution work for all
Mokgoro began her address, which encouraged the graduates to make the Constitution work for all, by reading the preamble to the Constitution, a reminder to those assembled of the bedrock of their future careers.
She stressed the importance of a strong, free and independent media in upholding constitutional values and advancing the democratic project of South Africa. For her, the Constitution is a living document, one that it is incumbent upon all who practise law to uphold.
The judge spoke passionately about the continuing struggles South Africans face: “Regrettably so, the effective implementation of our Constitution after more than 20 years of constitutionalism might become another face of the struggle for equality and justice.”
“The effective implementation of our Constitution after more than 20 years of constitutionalism might become another face of the struggle for equality and justice.”
She continued: “The injustices of the past continue to impact on our daily lives. We continue to struggle to get right the relationship between quality education and training, the free flow of information and the enhancement of opportunities for all on one hand and the eradication of debilitating poverty on the other hand.
“As a result, we continue to be haunted by social injustices which cut deep.”
Without fear, favour or prejudice
She stressed that it was the role of each and every graduate to address these issues “with the necessary sincerity, courage and commitment and the necessary understanding and unity of purpose” to prevent the implosion of society.
She urged those assembled to “consistently adjudicate without fear, without favour, without prejudice”, something that she herself has done for decades.
She implored the students to “carry the baton of democracy and the basic values of freedom, equality, human dignity and the rule of law” from her generation, who had established the constitutional framework which it was now their duty to fully realise, not only for themselves but for every member of society.
It seemed particularly fitting that the four Doctor of Philosophy degrees that were conferred were all to women: one in commercial law to Matsepa Kulehile and three in public law to Theressa Frantz, Lee-Ann Steenkamp and Melani van der Merwe.
Subjects ranging from electronic signatures to laws regulating trade in endangered species and climate change responses were expanded upon in the brief synopses of their theses arguments.
The 114 masterʼs degrees, 174 LLBs and 10 postgraduate diplomas in law conferred brought the total of awards for the year to 298.
In their duty to uphold one of the pillars of South Africaʼs democracy, these young graduates could not have asked for a better send-off than Mokgoro’s wise encouragement. In the years ahead, many are bound to follow in her footsteps.
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