‘Equipping the Legal Profession for Post Covid-19 Human Rights Restoration and Economic Recovery – Adapting Beyond the Pandemic’
The Leadership Collective of the SADC Lawyers Association;
All Legal Practitioners Present;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
I am pleased to address the 21st SADC Lawyers Association Annual General Meeting.
This important regional association has throughout the years lived to its values of contributing towards upholding and maintaining respect for the rule of law and fundamental liberties; promoting the respect of human rights, especially the rights of women, people living with disabilities and children; ensuring proper administration of justice; and working towards harmonisation of SADC countries’ respective legal systems.
The association provides an opportunity for lawyers in the SADC region to share experiences on the rule of law, and best practices.
On the matter of best practice, I have noted that in recent times, this body has been reviewing the Judicial Service Commissions across the SADC region. I think this a commendable task.
I am sure you eagerly followed the performance of our JSC in South Africa as we sought to appoint a new Chief Justice. One of the issues which have arisen from these latest proceedings, is whether the time has come for us to have a code of conduct for JSC members.
Of particular concern is that it was lawyers themselves who to some extent, degenerated the gathering.
We should use a platform such as this to develop and broaden legal mechanisms to address injustices which continue to deprive people in our region their human rights leading to a culture of impunity.
Ladies and gentlemen, we must also examine whether the wheels of justice in our region are turning at acceptable pace, or the lived experiences of our clients confirm whether the wheels have worn out.
What are the systematic barriers that we must tackle within the legal profession in the region? What is the state of the justice system in Africa? What are the noteworthy advances that we can take home? These are some of pertinent questions the meeting should answer.
According to research, as of March 20, 2022, a SADC country, Seychelles, was the African country with the highest coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination rate, with around 202 doses administered per 100 individuals. Gradually, we are seeing that various countries are opening up in line with their vaccination rates. This will enable resumption of economic activities. According to the IMF Sub-Saharan, Africa’s economy is set to expand by 3.7 percent in 2021 and 3.8 percent in 2022.
Distinguished Guests, I have noted that you gather under the theme: ‘Equipping the Legal Profession for Post Covid-19 Human Rights Restoration and Economic Recovery – Adapting Beyond the Pandemic’.
I must say many industries have been affected by COVID-19. Most economies have contracted, but one industry which has not stood still, is the legal profession, the wheels of justice across several countries have continued to turn.
Equally, I am appreciative of the fact that where those of us clothed with electoral power or even state power may have acted outside the rule of law, we could still be held accountable during the height of the pandemic across the SADC region.
Access to justice within our context was not curtailed by the pandemic although rights were limited to some extent by efforts to manage COVID-19. So, the question arises, do Human Rights have to be restored?
If the answer is yes, the next question should also be, what is our role in upholding human rights in the first place.
What we have seen and experienced is that where there has been investment in ICT, this has proven to be an invaluable factor in the administration of justice. But even then, our over reliance on imported technology from outside of the African continent is something that should concern us all.
We must take this opportunity to work very closely with our local technology industries, to develop digital technology platforms to service the legal industry. To this end, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement should be something we should leverage on as a profession.
Still on technology, various experts across the globe, are of the view that the advancement of technology will disrupt the legal profession in an unprecedented manner. Richard Susskind, renowned author on the future of legal services, most of you should be familiar with his writings, predicted in his book that lawyers would submit evidence and arguments to judges online, moving judgments from the courtroom to online platforms.
He further wrote that technology would help solve disputes without needing traditional court system. The outcomes of court decisions would be based on past decisions by using predictive analytics.
Have we lived not to see some of his predictions coming into reality? COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine how we administered justice in terms of adapting to technological trends. We might have to adapt further to alternative technological methods of practicing which have significantly impacted other professions. This could enhance efficiencies in our profession.
The question that arises is how does legal professionals in the SADC region take advantage of the unprecedented shift towards technology? If we lag behind, and fail to embrace technology, we will never be able to compete against our peers elsewhere.
Let me also take this moment to make this intervention, on the question of upholding human rights. One of the great tragedies apartheid and colonialism is entrenchment of migrant labour in the SADC Region, to benefit of the South African economy.
The late Hugh Masekela makes this argument quite strongly in his epic song Stimela
There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi
There is a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe
There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique
From Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland
From all the hinterlands of Southern and Central Africa
This train carries young and old, African men
Who are conscripted to come and work on contract
In the gold and mineral mines of Johannesburg
And it's surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day
For almost no pay
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth
When they are digging and drilling that shiny mighty evasive stone.
Despite the advent of democracy in South Africa, we still see the migrant labour system in full force, of particular concern is that due to mis-governance and prevailing conflicts across the region South Africa remains an attractive destination. Herein lies the problem those have retain the balance of economic power in South Africa are still able to exploit those of us from economically ailing countries and conflict prone countries with low wages.
Is it not high time a body like this assists the political leadership in region by proposing a regional treaty that deals with this type of exploitation. President Cyril Ramaphosa has mandated this administration to hone in on this issue from the perspective of South Africa business owners should be allowed to exploit human beings who seek refuge in Africa because of externalities in their Home Countries.
Let me also take this moment to reassure you, South Africans are not xenophobic, we noted that where our law enforcement has been found wanting, some vigilante groups have attempted to scape goat this by fanning conflict between local citizens and our fellow brothers and sisters from the region.
We do however expect that everyone has the obligation to observe the rule of law in whatever nation they may find themselves. This means ensuring that we have the required documentation to enter and exist other states as well as observing the law in those states.
The second aspect which your conference seeks to address is that of Economic Recovery:
COVID-19 has revealed important structural weaknesses and fragilities in African economic policies and structures along with the health systems that have and will continue to adversely affect the continent.
With widespread poverty, large portions of urban population leaving in overcrowded informal settlements, and limited access to healthcare, many people will indirectly and directly be affected by COVID-19 and other ailments. So perhaps the question could also be how do we future proof ourselves from the effects of a pandemic of this nature.
To this end, as legal practitioners, we may have a broad view of the state of our health care systems through medico-legal claims. As legal bodies in the region, what stops us from providing a comprehensive assessment of what are the trends in our various health care systems.
Distinguished guests, the United Nations Population Fund, in a recent article, reveals that the East and Southern African Region has high rates of sexual violence against women and girls. In seven countries, around 20 percent of those aged 15 to 24 years reported that they had experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner. Sexual violence against early adolescents aged 15 and below is highest in conflict and post conflict countries in the SADC region.
The article further highlights that the high rate of violence against women and girls in the region is maintained by the persistence of harmful gender norms, alcohol
use, and overall increased poverty, violence in urban slum areas and conflict areas.
According to the article, most countries in the region do not reflect their commitments as expressed in numerous international conventions and treaties they are party to in national legislative policy and action.
So lawyers in the SADC region, before you lies a pandemic of violence against women and girls which you must combat. Violence of women and girls is exacerbated by the fact that sometimes perpetrators are closely related to their victims. Families conspire to conceal the abuse, and choose to resolve such abuse through mediation resulting in a greater injustice for survivors and victims.
Women and girls in our region continue to bear the brunt of abuse and they are calling out for justice. As a profession at the centre of restoring human rights, you can’t allow perpetrators to go unpunished. It is upon yourselves as representatives of the people, to bridge the divide between survivors and the justice system and restore their trust in the ability of the law to secure justice and protect them. Better yet you can’t be found amongst the perpetrators.
As I conclude, our region should prioritise and enhance pro-women policies, dismantle patriarchy and entrench the rights of women. We must drive social change to create better lives for women and girls.
In the words of our former President and lawyer, Nelson Mandela, “for every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. For every woman forced into unprotected sex because men demand this, we destroy dignity and pride. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against women.” Close Quote.
I thank you all and wish you a progressive meeting.