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Change the world

08/12/2023

Nelson Mandela University is conferring an Honorary Doctorate on Judge Narandran Jody Kollapen at its graduation ceremony on 13 December.

 

The University is honouring Judge Kollapen, who progressed from a lawyer during apartheid to a Justice in the Constitutional Court for his contribution to law.

He  has devoted his career to championing human rights and accessibility to the courts for the poor.

Judge Kollapen said, “I am humbled that Nelson Mandela University seeks to honour me in this way, and for saying the life I have lived and work I have done has made a difference to society.

I hope that I have played my part in carrying the baton for all the people who made such enormous sacrifices for us to be able to live in democratic country.”

His sense of justice was honed during his childhood in a working class family in Marabastad. His father was a waiter and mother was a factory seamstress who was arrested and jailed for her political activism.

When Justice Kollapen was 11, his family was forcibly removed to Laudium, west of Pretoria, as a result of the Group Areas Act.

After completing his law degree at Wits University in 1981, followed by his articles, he started his own practise in Marabastad, Pretoria. Every morning he took the bus to work, where a seat was kept open for the working class people travelling with him to get free legal advice during the 45km journey. Forty years later, he continues to champion access to the law for all.

 “Legal aid in its various forms today, including eing offered by universities, is essential for accessibility to the courts for the poor, as is the Legal Practice Act which requires of lawyers in practise and candidate attorneys to dedicate a number of hours to pro bono work,” explains Justice Kollapen. “These are all essential as the sustainability of the law, is, in large measure dependent on our ability to extend its reach for all.”

He points out that “there is great confidence in our judiciary which has strongly and repeatedly demonstrated its independence from political interference,” but  hastens to add, democracy is not just about the functioning of the judiciary or the right to vote. It is about improving the lives of people so that they can realise their full potential and there can be justice for all.

“Growing up in those times you saw the beautiful schools that white children attended and the homes of white people. And when I qualified as a lawyer, as a person of colour I could not have a meal with my white colleagues because the restaurants were for white people only. “

The only place where all races could meet was the Burgersdorp Hotel in Pretoria, which was classified as an ‘international hotel’.

From the outset he wanted to be a human rights lawyer to help change society. “It was an inevitable path for me and early in my career I was fortunate to work with Mr Brian Currin who went on to establish Lawyers for Human Rights, where I later became its National Director.”

Presiding over cases in the highest court of the land comes with many sleepless nights, as Justice Kollapen explains: “You are mindful you are dealing with decisions that impact the course of society, the way in which we are governed and the values we hold dear. Striking a balance is not easy and it keeps you up at night as you dive deep into the decisions you are making, in acute awareness of the enormity of this for society.”

He adds that it is highly stimulating to be part of the Constitutional Court and “to work with such wonderful colleagues, support staff and young lawyers who work as researchers in one’s chambers who look at the law through the lens of a younger person. You form a close team.” For young lawyers it is an enormous opportunity to be at the cutting edge of society and to substantially contribute to equality in our society. Passing the baton is so important.

Thirty years into democracy, Justice Kollapen says “South Africa needs to look back and ask what it was that we fought for. The answer is that we fought for democracy, for a system where there would be social justice and equality for all, a system in which the law would prevail and in which the opportunities denied to so many people during apartheid would prevail. It has to continue to remain the beacon for our country.”

He adds the Constitution provides the legal and ethical framework for the ongoing transformation of our society “and we have achieved much in the past 30 years, but much more is required of us if we are to address the challenges of poverty, inequality and exclusion. The judiciary, of which I am privileged and proud to be a part, has a critical role to play in ensuring that we show fidelity to the Constitution’s provisions and the values underpinning it.”

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za