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Femi Falana: Nelson Mandela as the peoples’ Lawyer

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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by Femi Falana SAN

Unlike most African lawyers Mandela did not go into legal practice to make money or gain access to political power. He was solely motivated by the desire to provide legal services to the poor and marginalized people of South Africa. Unlike African human rights lawyers who ape western lawyers by celebrating political and civil right Mandela insisted on the primacy of socio-economic rights and popular democracy.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became a lawyer in 1951. He had his pupilage at the law firm of Wikin, Sideisky & Eidelman in Johannesburg. Upon the completion of his pupilage he could not persuade himself to work in any law firm owned by white lawyers. He was particularly outraged by the fact that they were charging their poor Africans higher fees than rich white clients. Although legal practice in South Africa was totally dominated by white lawyers at the material time Mandela took the risk of setting up his own law firm.
As soon as he had set up the law firm he invited his comrade and colleague, Oliver Tambo to team up with him. Tambo who was then working in a firm owned by white lawyers did not hesitate to accept Mandela’s offer.  Both of them formed a partnership and their firm was known as “Mandela and Tambo”. Their office which was located at the Central District of Johannesburg was always beseeched by Africans who were victims of oppression and exploitation of the apartheid regime. Of their legal practice Oliver Tambo recalled at the time of his death that “we had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people”.
In his book, Long Walk To Freedom Mandela stated that he and Olive Tambo were a perfect match. For him it was a combination of his “mere emotional reactions to issues” and Oliver Tambo’s “even tempered objectivity”. Although they were not the only African lawyers but theirs was the first firm of black lawyers in South Africa. They were extremely busy in legal practice and in politics. The opening of the law firm coincided with the election of Mr. Mandela as the President of the Transvaal ANC. Shortly, thereafter he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. The implication of the ban was that he could neither hold any post in the ANC nor attend any political meeting. He was restricted to the Central District of Johannesburg.
However, Mandela defied the ban and attended the historic adoption and public presentation of the Freedom Charter of the People in 1955. The apartheid regime arrested 156 people including the ANC President, Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela. They were charged with high treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government and replace it with a communist state. The trial lasted till 1961. They were convicted but the sentence was suspended.
Embarrassed that Mandela was taking advantage of his practice to mobilize people against unjust laws and discriminatory practices the apartheid regime tried to frustrate them. The white lawyers were equally determined to remove Mandela from the legal profession. Thus, following his conviction under the Suppression of Communism Act the Transvaal Law Society requested the Supreme Court to strike his name from the roll of South African lawyers. But the petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court on the ground that Mr. Mandela had not violated any rule of professional ethics by defending his fellow Africans.
In 1961 Nelson Mandela established the Umkhonto we Siswe (“Spear the Nation”), the revolutionary wing of the ANC and became its commander-in-chief. A year later he was smuggled out of South Africa to attend and address the conference of African nationalist leaders at Addis Ababa Ethiopia. After the conference Mandela travelled to Algeria where he trained as a guerilla fighter. He was also in London to meet with ANC members in exile including Oliver Tambo and some British parliamentarians. On his return to South Africa Mandela was promptly arrested with the leaders of the Umkhonto we Siswe.
They were charged with over 200 counts of sabotage, preparing for guerilla warfare, preparing an invasion of South Africa, conspiracy, treasonable felony, treason etc. Like Fidel Castro who defended himself when he was tried for treason by the Batista regime in Cuba in 1956 Nelson Mandela decided to conduct his own defence. Since he considered the case as a trial of the aspirations of the African people he turned it into the trial of the apartheid regime. The accused persons were all convicted.
In his memorable allocotus Nelson Mandela justified his defiance and contempt for injustice when he said “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Although he was in prison for 27 years, his spirit was never broken. He and his imprisoned comrades rejected the demand of the apartheid regime to renounce violence for their freedom. They insisted on freedom for the entire oppressed people of South Africa. The principled commitment of Mandela and his comrades to the total liberation of South Africa motivated the ANC to continue the struggle against the forces of apartheid and imperialism. At long last the battle was won on February 11, 1990 when Mandela and other political prisoners regained their freedom. On May 10, 1994 he became the first black President of South Africa following the resounding victory of the ANC in the first general election in the country.
Unlike most African lawyers Mandela did not go into legal practice to make money or gain access to political power. He was solely motivated by the desire to provide legal services to the poor and marginalized people of South Africa. Unlike African human rights lawyers who ape western lawyers by celebrating political and civil right Mandela insisted on the primacy of socio-economic rights and popular democracy.
As a lawyer who genuinely believed in the rule of law and human rights his Administration never detained any person without trial. He also did not use the machinery of the State to intimidate or terrorize his political opponents. The South African judiciary was re-organized and reformed to serve the interests of all and sundry. Under him the post apartheid Constitution became a role model for the economically disadvantaged people in Africa. There is dichotomy between political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights.
At his inauguration as President of South Africa  Mr. Nelson Mandela said inter alia “we pledge to liberate our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination”. The great leader could not achieve the objective as was busy with the task of reconciling torturers and their victims while poverty continued to torture the majority of blacks! The best way to immortalize the Madiba is for the ANC to take up the challenge of liberating the deprived people of South Africa from the bondage of poverty.

Read this article in the Thisday Newspapers

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