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Jurist Calls for Equal Justice
Across Racial, Class Lines
February 14, 2000

South Africa's judicial system must treat all individuals fairly, if the country is to succeed in establishing a new order that guarantees human rights for all citizens, according to a prominent South African jurist.

Judge Dumisa Ntsebeza, chief investigator of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and judge of the High Court in South Africa, made his remarks during his keynote address at the start of a daylong conference, "Building Upon Legacies: Children of Human Rights Struggles," on Feb. 3.

Ntsebeza said the negotiated settlement between the African National Congress and the de Klerk regime that led to the end of apartheid six years ago, resulted in the adoption of a constitution that for the first time in the history of South Africa contained a Bill of Rights. "Our courts for the first time were being enjoined by the constitution ... to promote values which underlie an open and democratic society based on freedom and equality," he said.

Yet both the prosecutorial authority and the judiciary have remained largely white and male, and this "continues to be a cause for concern," he said. "The biggest challenge for South Africa will be the way in which those in authority are prepared to enforce the laws that are necessary to deepen democracy."

Ntsebeza drew a parallel with the judicial system in the United States which, he said, also remains tainted by race and class. "As long as the race/class issue remains unsolved in this country ... it will remain one of the sticking points in the struggle for civil rights," he said.

Sheila Sisulu, South Africa's Ambassador to the U.S., who opened the conference, acknowledged that there is still a long way to go in implementing goal of human rights for all, but said important victories have been won.

"I'm always mindful of the fact that the struggle for human rights continues," she said. "But to believe that we have not begun to break the back of racism and the abuse of human rights would be to deny the victories that we have notched in the past 100 years, from the end of fascism, through the victory of the civil rights movement in this country in the '60s, to the demise of apartheid in the '90s."

She said the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa could not have been achieved without numerous personal sacrifices.

"Many could not envisage the smooth transition that we enjoyed and the peace that we continue to enjoy since the demise of apartheid," she said. "Many call it a miracle, as if it was inexplicable, but those who know appreciate that the so-called miracle was as a result of the struggles of the people of South Africa who had embraced, envisioned and fought for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa in which all its people will enjoy full human rights."

Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, closed the conference with a challenge to the audience: "We must look to our future remembering what we have learned. We may create a community of neighbors, or we can fail and allow inter-group tensions and institutional racism to turn to violence and hatred," he said. "The choice is ours to make. ... Are you prepared to act?"