History

Background

The conception of BLA-LEC (the Centre) can be traced to the visit to South Africa in August 1982 by four prominent African-American jurists from the United States of America. The group was led by Justice Leon Higginbotham (now deceased), a prominent USA Judge, and included the following:

  • Judge Thelton Henderson
  • Mr Julius Chambers, a civil rights lawyer of Charlotte, North Carolina, who served as Director and counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP). He was accompanied by his wife, Vivienne.
  • Ms Sarah Mitchell, a civil rights lawyer.

They were the guests of the BLA. It is interesting to note that whilst in the country they avoided as far as possible staying in hotels but were accommodated by BLA members in their township homes. For instance, Justice Higginbotham stayed at the home of G M Pijte in Daveyton, Benoni, and Mr Julius Chambers and his wife were accommodated by Ramarumo Monama1 in Soweto. The latter had previously met some of them while visiting the USA and became their main guide and accompanied them in parts of their tour of the country. The Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored the group’s tour.

The group’s mission was primarily fact finding to acquaint themselves with the South African legal system, how it impacted on the work of black legal practitioners and lawyers generally and importantly to assess its potential for being used as an instrument for attaining social justice in South Africa. In order to achieve this mission, the group held talks, firstly, with members of the BLA and black lawyers generally and, secondly, with the broader South African legal fraternity. They observed the nature of the legal practices conducted by black lawyers and, in particular, the impediments placed on the work of black lawyers by the apartheid system, for instance, the influx control legislation that restricted the movement of black people to certain exclusive areas, the Group Areas Act in terms of which black practitioners could set up office only in the periphery of South Africa’s towns and cities. They set out to meet black students but also met the white legal establishment in an effort to impress on this sector the need for them to open up avenues for the training of more black legal practitioners.

The group travelled the length and breadth of South Africa, meeting black lawyers and other formations of the country’s dis-enfranchised communities, all the while sharing and exchanging ideas. They visited major cities and towns like Pietersburg (now Polokwane), Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town, Soweto and Benoni amongst others.

They experienced first-hand the hardship of living in South Africa when they visited some of these centres. For instance, in Lenyenye township in Tzaneen they met amongst others Dr Mamphela Ramphele, a medical practitioner who had been banished to Tzaneen and restricted to that township by government decree. They visited a settlement area in Phepheni, Tzaneen, where several hundred families had been dumped after being uprooted from their traditional homes following a government proclamation that their homes were situated in an area zoned for the homeland of Gazankulu. The people had put up shanties but there were no sanitary facilities and no clean water.

They held meetings with students at the University of the North and the black academic staff, later to be known as the Black Staff Association. They also visited the universities of Natal, Cape Town and Zululand. En route to Cape Town the visitors went via Bisho in the Ciskei where they were harassed by the local police. It is reported that as they were taking photographs of a court building they were approached by the local police who then took them to the local police station where they were interrogated by the Ciskei Intelligence Services. They were later released after it was established that they were foreigners.

On their return to the United States, several American newspapers reported on their experiences in South Africa and Justice Higginbotham commented that “they have been unanimous in their condemnation, not merely of the adverse treatment we received but most importantly of the daily plight of blacks in South Africa”.

It was during this visit that Judge Higginbotham suggested to the BLA executive that a legal education centre be set up. It was to serve as a centre for education, research and publication and would establish and administer law clinics.

Realising that the birth of the Centre would assist towards achieving the BLA‘s objectives, a skeleton staff selected early in 1984 and the first few meetings were held at the Adviser House on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg offices of the Chairman, Mr Pitje.

Establishment

The BLA realised that the birth of the Centre would help achieve its objectives and went about to establish it. Skeleton staff was selected in 1984 and the first few meetings were held at the Advisor House on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg at the offices of attorney Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje2 (now deceased). It soon dawned on the BLA that it could not run the Centre as some kind of a loose unit within the Association and that a trust, complete with its board of trustees, had to be established to run the Centre as a separate legal entity. A task team led by Dikgang Moseneke went about that task and the BLA-LEC Trust Deed was duly drawn and registered on 8th April 1984.

On the 1st October 1984, the Centre moved to temporary offices in the centre of Johannesburg. Mr Sello Monyatsi, an attorney practising in Johannesburg, was appointed the Centre’s first director. He, however, held the position for a short period and vacated it during the same year. Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje (popularly known as “GM”) was persuaded to take over the position of director which he reluctantly did the same year. This was a sacrifice as he had to abandon his well-established practice and take over a position that could not guarantee him a regular income. He was to remark that “I did it for the love of the BLA, the profession and my desire to see the black lawyers’ progress”. GM put together his skeleton staff consisting of Advocate Modise Khoza3 as programme officer and Mr S Hlongwane as research officer. In December 1984 premises were found on the 2nd Floor, Manchester House, 68 Von Weiligh Street, Johannesburg. Mr Abbey Mothokwa joined the staff as head of the Law Clinics in Johannesburg and Alexandra. The others to follow were Ms Faith Maqubela/Mandiwana as Administrator, Mrs Idah Motsoeneng as Secretary and Ms Marie Mochawana as messenger. GM steered the ship of the Centre until 1986 when he stepped down as Director and resumed his practice in Commissioner Street, Johannesburg.

The Centre received funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation as well as the Rockefeller Foundation amongst others.

After the departure of GM as director the Centre was run by a management committee the members of which were George Maluleke4, Tholi Vilakazi5, G M Pitje, Seun Moshidi6, Dikgang Moseneke7 and Cedric Mhinga8. They were assisted by Ms Amanda Cornwall, an Australian activist who had taken great interest in the work of BLA and who also conducted research on behalf of the Centre. She was subsequently forced to leave the country by the apartheid regime when they refused to renew her work permit. The position of Director was subsequently advertised and Justice Moloto, an attorney, practising in Durban, was appointed to the position. Three other members who joined the staff were Dolly Mokgatle as Litigation Officer and Nomonde Mnqibisa who headed the Education Department. Advocate Mojanku Gumbi also joined the Centre as Project Director in the period 1987 to 1989 and subsequently became the Centre’s Director. Dolly Mokgatle and Advocate Mojanku Gumbi together with Advocate Pansy Tlakula (one of the former directors of the Centre) did a lot to take the Centre’s activities to the communities around Gauteng by continually addressing various gatherings and interacting with communities in these areas.

Mention must be made of Ms Faith Mandiwana who was the Centre’s longest serving administrator and who kept the Centre’s administration going in the periods when the position of Director was vacant.

Activities

The Centre’s primary objective was to serve as a vehicle through which the BLA ran its projects as well as providing administrative backup for the Association. As the BLA membership gradually grew, the Centre focused on professional enhancement. It established the Education and Litigation departments which have since made their mark in the history of the Centre. These departments were responsible for the following:

  • To provide continuing legal education and on-going practical legal training to black practitioners in order to enhance competence and improve skills.
  • The Education Department operated several schemes such as the Bursary Fund for university students and the Trial Advocacy project which ran seminars and workshops for practising practitioners. Mock trials at university level were also conducted and a Salary Subsidy scheme was established which provided funding for those black practitioners who were willing to take up black candidate attorneys.
  • To run Law Clinics.
  • Such Clinics were established in Johannesburg, Alexandra and QwaQwa in the Free State. The Law Clinics provided legal advice to the disadvantaged communities and took on a limited number of cases that involved public interest matters.
  • To increase the number of black legal practitioners and to ensure that they remain in practice by funding their cases through the Legal Defence Fund Programme. The fund covered all cases arising out of resistance to apartheid laws in the country.
  • Litigation of political cases, including assaults by police, as well as well as cases involving students’ rights, housing and labour.

Publications

In 1987 the Centre founded a legal publication called the African Law Review. Its first editor was Ms Amanda Cornwall who also served as its researcher. The African Law Review (ALR) served as a platform for black lawyers to write articles, notes, and features, articulating their views on legal matters and other topical issues. It also recorded their activities and profiled many prominent black lawyers from the pioneers such as Pixley Isaka ka Seme, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela to G M Pitje. This was a quarterly journal which ran for several years until around 1995 when it closed shop due to a combination of factors. The publication had relied solely on sponsorship and could not generate any meaningful advertisement revenue to sustain itself. Other factors were a lack of a research base at the Centre and possibly lack of experience in the area of publications.

Subsequently another publication called Uhuru was launched under the editorship of Prof Shadrack Gutto but it also ran into the same difficulty that saw the demise of the ALR. After the demise of these publications the publication department focused only on producing pamphlets and the Centre’s annual reports.

The Impact

It was mainly through the establishment of the Centre that the BLA became well known within the country and outside. Invitations poured in from countries like United States and some African states requesting members to address lawyers and human rights groups. One such visit was to attend the International Bar Association’s (the IBA) Annual Conference in Washington in July 1988 on the theme “The Legal Aspects of Apartheid”. The conference was co-sponsored by the Washington based Lawyers Committee for Equal Rights Under the Law and the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Committee of the American Bar Association. Twenty five South African and Namibian lawyers were invited. Those who represented the BLA at the conference were Advocates D Moseneke, Modise Khoza, and L Skweyiya9 as well as attorneys Seun Moshidi, G M Pitje, Matthews Phosa, Priscilla Jana and Don Nkadimeng and they formed largest single delegation to the conference. The BLA representatives delivered well researched papers on a variety of apartheid laws and the implementation thereof, including forced removals, torture in detention, questionable inquests, Bantustans and the impartiality or otherwise of the then South African judiciary. Also from South Africa were two black attorneys and one white attorney from the Eastern Cape who delivered papers on the Uitenhage shootings and the Kanemeyer Commission of Inquiry. Another event worth mentioning is the visit of lawyers from the United States of America under the United States South African Leadership Exchange Programme (USSALEP) for comparison and training in the necessary expertise and skills relating to broad legal instruments, public interest law projects and civil rights and liberties.

Milestones

The Centre has enjoyed a number of successes amongst which are the following:

  • A bursary fund scheme for students at university level.
  • Mock trials at black universities where those did not form part of the university curriculum.
  • Candidate attorney subsidy scheme to induce black lawyers to take in articled clerks. According to one previous director, Justice Moloto10, this has been a major success.
  • Candidate attorney tuition fund scheme which enabled students to register with the Principal School in preparation for the attorney’s admissions examination. The scheme required that students pay a deposit and the Centre pays the balance. A student’s progress is monitored closely and should a student be successful a deposit is refunded in full.
  • A funding scheme run for seminars and conferences aimed at dealing with specific problem areas of the law. The Centre was the first organisation to introduce Trial Advocacy in South Africa. This has been a very successful programme that is highly recommended by judges and lawyers alike. Trial Advocacy has now become a permanent feature of the South African legal system and is in the curricula of various South African universities as well as being part of the practical training for attorney’s admission examinations. The popularity and success of this training programme was due in large measure to the fact that it was introduced into this country by a team of American Trial Advocacy specialists led by the consummate Mr James Fergusson II and Professor Kenneth Broun, Dean, University of North Carolina.

Leadership

  • George Maluleke (Chairman)
  • Dumisa Ntsebeza11
  • James Yekiso12
  • Prof Chabane Manganye
  • Adv. T L Skweyiya
  • Tholi Vilakazi
  • Dikgang Moseneke

Directors of BLA-LEC:

Director Name Directorship Period
Mr Sello Monyatsi 1984
Mr Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje 1984 – 1986
Mr Justice Moloto 1986 – 1992
Adv. Mojanku Gumbi 1992 – 1993
Adv. Pansy Tlakula 1994 – 1996
Adv. Ismael Semenya SC 1996 – 1997
Mr Sibusiso Gamede 1997 – 2001
Ms Andiswa Ndoni Sept 2001 – Dec 2006
Ms Nokukhanya Maluleke (now deceased) Jan 2007 – Mar 2008
Ms Faith Mandiwana (Acting) Apr 2008 – June 2009
Jul 2011 – Dec 2011
Ms Xoliswa Nakani Jul 2009 – May 2011
Mr Kenneth Mapengo Feb 2012 – Dec 2012
Ms Andisiwe Sigonyela (Acting) Jan 2013 –

1 Ramarumo Emmerson Monama is now a Judge on the bench of the South Gauteng High Court.
2 Mr Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje was a veteran lawyer and doyen of black practitioners at the time. He was the founding president of the BLA and played a very prominent role in the affairs of this organisation.
3 Adv Modise Khoza SC is now one of the most senior black advocates in the country and is based at the Johannesburg Bar.
4 George Sammy Shane Maluleke is now judge on the bench of the South Gauteng High Court. He chaired the Board of Trustees of the Centre from its inception and was its longest serving chairperson, who oversaw the Centres development to what it is today.
5 The late John Felix Tholi Vilakazi was a veteran practitioner in Pretoria and an active BLA member. At the time of his death he was an acting judge on the bench of the North Gauteng High Court.
6 Stanley Seun Dimpheletse Moshidi is now a judge on the bench of the South Gauteng High Court; he was a founder member of the BLA and served as its secretary for a number of years.
7 Dikgang Ernest Moseneke is a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the country’s Deputy Chief Justice. A founding member of the BLA, he practised first as an attorney and later as an advocate, achieving silk before he was appointed to the bench.
8 Hosi Cedric Shiluwa Mhinga practised as an attorney in Johannesburg before moving into his present position of traditional leader based in Limpopo.
9 Justice Lewis Skweyiya is a Judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He previously practised as an advocate at the Durban Bar and was one of the country’s first black senior advocates (SC).
10 Mr Justice Justice Moloto is now a Judge on the bench of the North Gauteng High Court, who is presently seconded to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. He was the Centre’s longest serving director and is credited for having stabilised the Centre’s affairs and put in place a sound administration base upon which future directors were to build.
11 Dumisa Ntsebeza SC is presently a member of the Judicial Service Commission and Chairman of the Advocates for Transformation. He was a well-known civil rights attorney before moving on to become an advocate where he has become one of the leading figures in the quest to transform the South African legal profession and judiciary.
12 Nhlupheko James Yekiso is now a Judge on the bench of the Western Cape High Court. He previously practised as an attorney in Cape Town and was a prominent BLA member.