From Robben Island to Trump: what American protesters can learn from South Africa

A South African judge on lessons from the liberation struggle.

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Outside the entrance to Marlborough House, in Westminster, chauffeurs are minding a pack of luxury German sedans. Inside the building, the guests – politicians and diplomats – are taking off their winter coats and settling in to listen to an extraordinary man who has travelled a long way.

Dikgang Moseneke was 15 when he was arrested in South Africa, tortured and forced to stand trial without a lawyer. He was sentenced to a decade of hard labour on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was also held. He spent that time – which he defiantly describes as a “brief absence” – devouring Shakespeare, Keats, Tolstoy, T S Eliot, Samuel Beckett and Boris Pasternak, or reciting Latin while working in the prison’s quarry.

Moseneke not only rose to become a deputy chief justice of South Africa, but survived two attempts on his life by the apartheid regime. He helped to write what became the rainbow nation’s interim constitution. Mandela personally asked him to help conduct South Africa’s first free elections in 1994.

Less than a mile away, Moseneke is lost in Trafalgar Square. He is tired from the flight and cold, but the retired judge has decided to catch the Tube from his hotel and walk the rest of the way.

Like the other guests, I’m waiting for him. Our interview is scheduled to take place before the event and the clock is ticking. A member of staff is sent to meet him in the street.

“They told me London is a walking city,” Moseneke offers by way of apology when he finally arrives. His broad smile melts away all anxiety. I remember an address he gave to South Africa’s National Press Club in 2015, when he told us journalists to “worship at the altar of truth”. He notices my copy of his recently published memoirs, My Own Liberator, and finds it amusing that every second page is marked.

Moseneke, who is 69, is dressed in a pinstripe suit. He takes his glasses out of a scruffy case. As we start talking he appears to measure each word, but I sense also that beneath his 40 years of legal discipline lies something of Barack Obama’s swagger, or perhaps even Muhammad Ali’s shadow-boxing bravado. He has the kind of confidence that comes from taking on history and emerging on the right side.

I ask him whether the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump make him sad. Moseneke looks away and takes a deep breath.

“The answer is yes,” he says.

The international order has fallen into disarray, he explains. He believes it is fear that has caused the West to become more inward-looking. He sees nations trying to reassert exceptionalism and pull back the liberal gains made in the post-colonial era.

For the same reason men in the mould of Moseneke never stop walking, they also never fall into a state of hopelessness. For him, the hope lies in what he perceives to be a growing civil society.

“There are greater levels of concern around resources, the environment, concentration of wealth, around poverty and inequality,” he says. “We are getting into a world where we have a contestation between civil society and recalcitrant governments.”

Two days after we meet, millions of people march in cities across the world in opposition to Trump. And again, thousands later gather in London to protest against the so-called refugee ban and Trump’s proposed state visit to Britain. A sentence from Moseneke’s memoirs come to mind: “A world of anguish and hope all wrapped up tightly together.”

As so many stalwarts of his and earlier generations die, Moseneke’s words seem to me more urgent than ever.

“What I did when I was in dire straits during our liberation struggle is to find a personal locus that grounds me and couple it with larger issues that express my sense of right and wrong, fluid as it may be from time to time,” he says.

He recalls years when his life was engulfed by chaotic violence, with people being murdered or disappearing and fellow lawyers being assassinated. It was a time of oppression, when Moseneke had to go to court to seek permission to marry his wife, because he was under house arrest and a wedding constituted an illegal gathering.

“We have to draw from our inward strength,” he says. “The world is as much moved by individuals as it is moved by groups . . . We have to find space for individual agency, doing right on your own and as a collective. Find others who are thoughtful and caring. They are not hard to find.”

Moseneke is scathing in his assessment of America’s new president. “Ordinary people are pushing back because the political elite has gone gaga. They refuse to be restrained by ethical norms. Trump doesn’t seem to think there are any lines in the quest for power, and what money didn’t give him he would like to have in the public space.”

Before he died, Mandela would invite Moseneke over for breakfast at his home in Johannesburg.

There, the judge writes in his memoirs, Mandela would compare political leaders and parties to trees. Willow trees bent with the wind, dipped down to find water and understood tactics. Pine trees stood firm on principles, even if the wind broke them into splinters. Moseneke stood against the wind, and his resistance took him from a hunger strike for the right to play football matches on Robben Island to being second-in-command of his nation’s supreme court. His role now, as he sees it, is not to start a new struggle, but to share his wisdom and to stir younger hearts.

This article appears in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again