Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon John Jeffery, MP, in the Motion of Condolence on the passing of Ms Dene Smuts, National Assembly, 24 May 2016
Ladies and gentlemen
It was with great sadness that I learnt of the passing of Dene Smuts.
I first met Dene when I came to the National Assembly as an MP in 1999. We worked particularly closely together on the Justice and Constitutional Development Committee, which she became a full member of after the 2009 elections.
During that period the Committee finalised pieces of legislation such as the Constitution 17th Amendment, which made the Constitutional Court the Apex Court and the Chief Justice the head of the Judiciary; the Protection of Personal Information Bill – an immensely complex piece of legislation and the Legal Practice Bill – a very contentious Bill which had been some 15 years in the making, because attorneys and advocates could not agree on many issues.
Dene in her own words said: “There are two approaches to opposition lawmaking work: making a noise and making a difference. Sometimes you have to make some of the former in order to achieve the latter, but mostly not. I have never been interested in work that does not have effect…”
Whilst Dene was an opposition MP, she definitely made a difference.
She did not blindly follow a party line. She was a creative thinker who solved problems that were acceptable to a wide range of parties.
When the Justice Committee dealt with legislation it looked at the more contentious clauses from many angles, so as to come up with the best approach and to satisfy conflicting interests as much as possible.
It was not unusual to find Dene and Debbie Shafer, the other DA member of the Committee, vigorously arguing with each other in the Committee about certain provisions. That is the way we worked.
Dene was highly respected by the ANC members of the Portfolio Committee. She worked hard, read and researched extensively and because of that we listened to her.
We did not always agree, but the proposals Dene made were always given serious consideration and many were, in fact, included in the legislation.
Dene was a formidable political opponent, a highly respected Member of Parliament and a good friend. She was larger than life and it is difficult to think of her no longer being with us. I remember, during a study trip to Germany to assist us with the consideration of the Constitution 17th Amendment Bill, on our departure, Dene wondered aloud whether she would ever return to Berlin. I remember thinking that she was being unduly pessimistic, as she still had many years in life and no doubt she would return to Berlin, a city she enjoyed.
She was outspoken, fearless and dedicated to what she believed in. But perhaps the single most outstanding characteristic of Dene was that she put principle before politics. There was no “in-between” with Dene, if something was right, it was right and she would defend it to the bitter end and would not be swayed.
I had to smile as a read a piece on how Dene, in 1987, as editor of the Fair Lady magazine told Naspers that she was not going to put up with editorial interference by management. As a result she resigned as editor. Former Naspers chairperson, Ton Vosloo, then tells of how she said “I don’t approve… I am taking my handbag and going.”
Shortly thereafter, Dene embarked on a journey in politics, first elected to Parliament in 1989 for the Groote Schuur constituency. During the constitutional negotiations she served on the then Democratic Party’s negotiating team and significantly contributed to the writing of the Bill of Rights. She was also the DP’s spokesperson at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In her farewell speech in the National Assembly in April 2014, she said “I am a lawmaker”. And that she was – par excellence. Her intellect and her ability to shape legislation was unrivalled. Dene Smuts made a difference, always.
Sometimes with a bit of noise, sometimes with all-out vigour, but always strategically working towards finding that compromise position - meticulously crafting at the words of a bill, striking that nuance, that ensures that the legislation works and works well. As an experienced legislator, Dene was one the most colourful and authentic personalities that ever graced the Parliamentary passages.
I am pleased that her memory will live on in the Dene Smuts Memorial Scholarship fund‚ an award which is to be established in her honour.
If Dene were here now she would surely tell us to get on with things, as there is so much to be done. I found a poem and I inevitably thought of Dene. It reads -
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I'm gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must, Parting is hell,
But Life goes on, So sing as well.
My sincerest condolence to Dene’s family, friends and former colleagues.
A great tree has fallen.
May she rest in peace.