There are certain structural basics to be a judge: You must be ready to work hard for starters and know the facts.
“You must be prepared to work late, long days and nights. You must know the law or at least where to find it. And lastly, you must have a deep sense of fairness – you must want to do justice – and with all of that you must deal with integrity.”
This is what it takes to be a judge, advises retired Constitutional Court Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.
And is with those attributes that he carried out his 15 years of judicial service, and he has taken away with him memories of service to the people, by being a guardian of the South African Constitution.
In his book My Own Liberator – the first of two memoirs – Moseneke pays homage to people who have helped define him.
From tracing his ancestry, showing the importance of family, hard work, education, morality and compassion for those less fortunate, Moseneke describes his non-acceptance of an unjust political regime and its oppressive laws.
He details his arrest at age 15 for participating in anti-apartheid activities, and with it came detention and incarceration on Robben Island for 10 years. It is here that through dedicated study on the island the path was laid towards his law degree.
Moseneke says he began writing about four years ago.
“I realised that I am getting towards the end of my career and I wanted the book to coincide with my retirement – when I salute goodbye.
“As you know, it’s in two parts, and the challenge was whether I could squeeze in 15 years of judicial life – my childhood, my background, arrest, detention, full life, the transition into democracy.
“It’s quite an intense autobiography, written for a very different audience,” he says, further adding that judicial memoirs and its market are scarce in South Africa – the last was written by Chief Justice James Rose Innes more than 100 years ago.
“So I write and say what is it to be a judge; what does it entail, and how was it for me.
“This would allow the community at large,” he says, “to peep into the judicial function.”
On being able to sit down and detail those recollections, Moseneke says: “Remember, I was a judge, so I wrote a lot.
“I wrote many, many judgments, and some dealing with very important things in society – so I had to share the time between that and my normal judicial work, which runs into evenings. In short, I had to burn the midnight oil, spending long hours juggling between the two functions.
“And in the preface, I talk about how often I had to clear my head and say ‘now you are the young man from Atteridgeville trying to start living, and you are not the big man from the ivory tower or mountaintop pronouncing a judgment.”
There are very serious efforts made in the book to just be human, he adds.
“I climb into the books of the young one, me the prisoner on Robben Island, me the activist, the liberator and the freedom fighter.”
It’s difficult to tally the hours spent writing My Own Liberator, says Moseneke – on some weekends he would write entirely from Friday through to Sunday late afternoon, with breaks in between.
“And sometimes you would write only for an hour and a few paragraphs. There are times where the flow would be much better and more inspirational, and that’s why it took four years to complete about 400 pages.”
The inspiration, he adds, usually came from the subject matter – where the recall flowed.
“It’s almost as if you are viewing a film of yourself as a protagonist.”
There were times where the emotions flowed.
“I tried not to manage that, I tried to write about it. There are pertinently emotional moments, such as my trip to Cape Town through the Atlantic – I didn’t even think we would make it, I thought we would drown.
“The township boy who never saw the sea, and I was chained in a boat.”
The book is worth reading and soaking up the authenticity in its description of these moments.
It’s a book drawing from these human experiences, Moseneke says.
“It’s a book about fighting oppression; it’s a book about the duty to free yourself, to liberate yourself. It’s a book about speaking truth to power.”
My Own Liberator: A Memoir is on shelves now.