A legacy left behind, a guide for the future

Judge Essa Moosa

On December 4, 2018 I will be married to Rosieda for exactly 30 years. It should however, have been 31 years except that 31 years ago in 1987 I was a political detainee in Pollsmoor Prison. As would be usual at that time, Essa Moosa was my lawyer. When he heard that I had plans for marriage in December 1987, the caring and legally adept Essa Moosa immediately petitioned the Minister of police, Adrian Vlok, to allow the marriage to proceed with, of course, the outcome of my release from prison in mind. Vlok however, wrote back to say that indeed I could proceed with the wedding but only in prison. Rosieda and her father declined this offer.

I was released in July 1988 and we set the wedding date almost exactly a year later than intended, but this time as a person restricted to my home under extremely strict conditions. Again, Essa Moosa the lawyer became the wedding planner because he had to apply for various permissions for the wedding to proceed. He successfully applied that I could move beyond the magisterial district to which I was confined; that I could stay out later than the prescribed 6pm curfew; that I could be in the company of more than 10 people – which then escalated to 1000 people at the wedding; that a relative, who turned out to be Dullah Omar, be allowed to speak at the wedding; that I needn’t sign in at the police station after the wedding; and that I could leave Cape Town for our honeymoon. This was the Essa we all knew, albeit with different life, if not life-saving, stories about the role of E Moosa and Associates.

This was not a lawyer who was humane, but it was a lawyer whose very approach to, and definition of, law was humane, and for whom human rights was not a branch of law, but constituted its core. Such an approach understood that law, like any other human endeavour, was founded on navigating complexity and nuance because the avoidance of these transforms righteousness into self-righteousness. It was as if the words of the Persian Muslim philosopher, Al Ghazali, was written to describe Essa Moosa: “The aim of moral discipline is to purify the heart from the rust of passion and resentment, till, like clear mirror, it reflects the light of God.”

For Essa Moosa, the pursuit of justice was not born of a moment of outrage that fires the passion or a moment of anger that breeds resentment. This distinguished Essa from the passionate activist whose commitment is confined to a single issue for a limited time, as well as from the fundamentalist whose cause may that have the ring of righteousness but its origin is resentment. For him justice was not bound by space and time, but was the constant and consistent application thereof in every phase of life.

He fought for justice in Cape Town, throughout South Africa, for the Saharawi on the northern side of Africa and for the Kurds in the Middle East. He sought justice in his early life at work when he desired a mere £10 per month, and then opposed the evictions from District Six, and then, his crowning glory, he built a law firm committed to the defeat of apartheid, after which defeat, he put his fingerprints on the foundations of a new South African Bill of Rights and Constitution, the upholding of which, asked him to be a judge that would dispense justice, and after retirement he sought justice for peoples across the world whose causes were underreported, if not marginalised.

Essa Moosa could distinguish between legality that asks did you comply and morality that asks is this right? Between legalism that says you wont be caught and ethics that says you are accountable! Between judgement that says you are guilty and justice that asks how do we restore and heal? The first half of each of these equations are the causes of the existential crisis besetting the world, our country and our movements, while the latter parts constitute the ingredients for renewal.

I often wonder how Essa may have felt witnessing the last decade when the very party – the African National Congress – that had bequeathed freedom and democracy and human rights to South Africa, and to which he was so committed throughout his life, when the leadership of that party violated both the spirit and the letter of all that it had bequeathed. One thing I am certain of is that Essa Moosa did not leave the ANC. The ANC left Essa Moosa! He retained his values while ANC leaders violated them. He retained his simplicity, while ANC leaders lived beyond their means. He retained his concern for the poor while the ANC forgot their very mission. So many of our fault lines are inherited and structural. But the poor can often endure the poverty if the leaders don’t feed at the trough. It is then that the politics of envy and resentment makes poverty unbearable and dangerous. That’s when the age of populism and extremism is born.

There will be those who may be uncomfortable that we come together to revive the legacy and values of Essa Moosa in the aftermath of corruption, nepotism and general venality. Those who are uncomfortable would like Essa Moosa to be remembered fondly as a relic of the past and to be banished from memory as a template for the future. To those we say in the words of the poet Shabir Bannobhai: “Forget who you are, to remember who you were.” Let us forget the accouterments of power and title and remember rather the mission of service and sacrifice that drove us through the dark night of apartheid and the exhilaratingly dangerous transition to democracy.

But this may not come easily to those trapped by power and title. That’s why tonight, in the memory of Essa Moosa, we must make a call on all of you to return to the African National Congress, to be ready for one more fight, not simply as voters, but as architects of its new future committed to renewal, cleansing and healing. The ANC needs this renewal, as it remains the only Movement capable of transforming South Africa towards the collective vision we had of it. We must call you back to the trenches to confront privilege on the right, populism on the left and the remains of venality on the inside. The ANC represents all of our collective contribution to a South Africa that yearns still be united across its diversity, free of racism and sexism and more equal economically. To achieve this, we all need to press the reboot button.

Ebrahim Rasool is the former Premier & Ambassador & currently ANC Elections Head  for the Western Cape.