One of the great legends of the freedom struggle, Essa Moosa, passed away on February 26. An active lawyer defending political detainees — and a founding member of the anti-apartheid National Association of Democratic Lawyers, Essa later became a Supreme Court judge and will always be remembered as a true South African hero.
The legal professional was left poorer with the passing of Judge Moosa - and the voice of the black legal profession, in particular, is undoubtedly quieter since his death.The judge was one of only a few judges who could relate to the struggles faced by black lawyers in the country and he remained committed to this cause until his death.
As a young activist in the mid-80s, I knew of Essa Moosa and his reputation as a ferocious and cheeky opponent of the injustices meted out in the criminal courts when activists were arrested and detained without trial. Activists took comfort in his bravery and his willingness to shield us from a harsh legal system that even sent some amongst us to their deaths. I’m certain that Judge Essa would have been a wealthier man if he had been a corporate lawyer and had he not cared so deeply for our struggles—and often impetuousness! — that got us arrested by the police. Judge Moosa was an activist first and then a lawyer. He did not let the trappings of legal success and stature as a judge veer him off course from seeking fairness and equality for black practitioners.
During my personal interactions with Judge Essa in recent times, I found him to be patient and sincerely interested in the challenges facing black legal practices. The Judge would readily pause to acknowledge me, even when he was occupied in a personal or familial setting. He once halted a lunch meeting with two other judges to simply bade me a ‘hello’, ask about my day and introduce me to the judges with whom he was dining—even though, at that time, he had dealt with me in person just once before.
I still wonder if he mistook me for someone else on the day but, nonetheless, I felt equally graced. His diminutive frame belied his giant stature as an activist and human rights lawyer and his humility conjured up strong emotions of love and respect among everyone that I know who knew him. I can only hope that age will bestow that same wisdom on me.