(Published - 28 November 2019)
On 18 December 1960, two schoolteachers in the tiny Northern Cape town of Kenhardt welcomed the first-born of four sons into the world. Of all the futures they could have imagined for Stevan Arnold Majiedt, being appointed to the highest court in the land probably wasn’t one of them.
In September 2019, the University of the Western Cape alumnus was appointed a judge of the Constitutional Court by President Ramaphosa.
Justice Majiedt, who says he still regards himself “as a small-town boy”, moved to Barkly West as a child when his father became principal of a school there. As there was only a high school for Whites in Barkly West, Majiedt completed high school at William Pescod Secondary in Kimberley, which also produced Supreme Court of Appeal judge and fellow UWC alumnus, Justice Mahomed Navsa, among other luminaries.
Justice Majiedt could not bring himself to apply for a permit to study law at a White university so, along with a number of other Pescodians, the former head prefect enrolled at UWC. Over the next five years, Majiedt lived in all three male hostels on campus.
Justice Majiedt says, “Studying at UWC turned out to be a wonderfully fulfilling experience, not so much academically, but in particular on a political and human level. I was amazed to discover early on that the one Latin phrase even non-Law students were fully conversant with on campus was ‘in vino veritas’! We made the most of our dire situation and pushed the boundaries others sought to impose upon us.
“In retrospect, even if I had had a proper choice, I would not have exchanged Udubs for any other law school.”
Studying law at the height of apartheid was a vastly different proposition to today, says Justice Majiedt, whose class of 1979 was the first to study at the separate Faculty of Law, previously part of the Faculty of Commerce.
He recalls strong suspicions of an unofficial agenda to ‘cull’ the numbers of black lawyers by failing students and says, “In the first year in my Private Law 1 class (1979), there were some 50 or 60 of us. In 1981, when I finished my junior degree, there were around 20 students left in that class. And in my final LLB year (1983), there were only nine of us left.”
Notwithstanding these problems and the poor standards of some lecturers, Justice Majiedt feels it was a privilege to have been a student, especially of “the doyen of contract law”, Prof Louis van Huyssteen, whose contract law textbook remains one of the leading authorities on the subject.
Justice Majiedt says, “UWC shaped my life in the most profound way imaginable. It was a rewarding experience to live in the hostel – the camaraderie, the spirit of togetherness, and of sharing and caring. And of course the hectic social life – ons was losgelaat!
“I learnt so much about life in general, but particularly about politics, the liberation struggle and the fight against apartheid. UWC instilled in me fundamental values such as humaneness, respect for others and the notion that we are all equal, no matter our race, gender, class or station in life. But most of all, it has taught me to overcome adversity through hard work, diligence and conscientiousness.”
In 1984, armed with his BA LLB degree, Majiedt headed confidently home, expecting to do his articles and not only become an attorney, but the first black lawyer to practice in Kimberley since Robert Sobukwe in the 1970s. After applying to every law firm in Kimberley and only securing one unsuccessful interview, Majiedt was forced to return to Cape Town and do his pupillage at the Cape Bar, with Adv Willie Duminy SC.
Soon after his arrival he opened a copy of De Rebus, the law journal, and saw that almost every one of the firms he had applied to was advertising positions for articled clerks.
“The message was clear – my colour was wrong,” says Majiedt.
Despite this and the difficulty of undertaking pupillage at the age of 23, Justice Majiedt says it was “a blessing in disguise” that he was not articled, not only because he learned a lot from Adv Duminy, particularly about commercial law and the drafting of pleadings, but because his formative years as a young advocate enabled him to contribute professionally to the struggle and learn from some of the country’s greatest black lawyers.
He says it was “a tremendous experience” to work with his mentor Dullah Omar and Denzil Potgieter, Siraj Desai and later Johnny de Lange on what was known as “the UDF-ANC floor” at the Advocate’s Chambers in Cape Town.
“I defended many UDF activists as well as combatants from MK, APLA and the black consciousness movement. I acted for some UWC students on a few occasions, mostly in arson and public violence cases,” says Justice Majiedt.
Many years later, as one of the first trustees of the Community Law Centre at UWC, Justice Majiedt got the chance to honour his mentor when he proposed Omar to serve as the Director of the centre, now called the Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights.
His career in the democratic era included acting as Chief Provincial State Law Adviser in the Office of Premier Manne Dipico in the Northern Cape from 1996, being appointed as an Acting Judge in March 2000, and as a permanent (and only the second Black) Judge in the Kimberley High Court in May 2000. He was appointed permanently to the Supreme Court of Appeal in December 2010 and acted in the Constitutional Court from 1 February 2014 until 31 May 2014 (two court terms).
The first judgment he wrote in the Constitutional Court (and his first-ever international law case) was the famous Zimbabwe torture case, which clearly established the SA Police’s obligation to investigate international crimes, even if they occurred outside the country. This judgment is cited in many other jurisdictions beyond our borders in cases involving torture and other crimes against humanity.
Reflecting on his illustrious career, Justice Majiedt says, “I was privileged to work with and learn from leading lights such as those mentioned earlier, as well as Chief Justice Pius Langa, Constitutional Court judge Thembile Skweyiya, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Adv Marumo Moerane and Gauteng Judge President Bernard Ngoepe. I learnt a lot from them, not only about the practice of law, but about being agents for change, to make a difference in this country as Black lawyers.”