Early on July 31 1973, a chilly morning, my firm and no-nonsense schoolmaster father and I set off to the then Pretoria Central Prison to pick up Dikgang, a brother I had never met. He had been imprisoned for 10 years to the day. It was not in the nature of the people in power to give a thought to releasing him a day or two in advance of the completion of his full 10-year term.
They had to extract maximum pain.
My mother, Karabo, and my brothers, Malatse and Kabelo, stayed at home to prepare for what was billed as the most joyous day of our otherwise miserable lives, which were generally unavoidably rained on by the unjust absence of our eldest brother and the constant security branch harassment of our entire family.
My father was a highly regarded and respected man in his community. He was self-assured, bright, opinionated and at the height of his powers, but he lived under the jackboot of apartheid, which even his steadfast character could not shed.
Apartheid seemed to pain him more than most.
We drove in complete silence. When we arrived at the prison, there was no long-jailed son to pick up. After the cruel and demeaning runaround they gave us, it became clear that the powers that be preferred to subject Dikgang to the indignity of delivering him to our home in Atteridgeville in the back of a police car. A fate my father would have preferred to avoid.
They denied a man 10 years of his son’s most impressionable years and then rubbed it in his face in full view of his adoring community.
My father’s anxiety turned to all-out rage. The full extent of his anger at the unjust incarceration of his first son by the apartheid regime came rushing uncontrollably to the fore.
When we ultimately arrived at our home to find it full of a large contingent of security branch police from the infamous Kompol Building, my father gave in to open aggression unknown against the security branch at the time.
They would have had to kill him but for my mother’s gentle intervention.
His valour made me proud, especially as it stood side by side with my now free and still unbroken brother.
He evicted them from our home – but not before they had served Dikgang with a banning order that would last for five years and which would prohibit him from being in the company of more than five people at a time.
The welcome party was broken up. Our neighbours had to leave. Some stayed away from us forever in fear of retribution, the idea of which was regularly reinforced by the security branch car that was often seen parked across from our humble home.
I was a wide-eyed 11-year-old and instantly learnt from both my father and my newly free brother, that day, that we could take on the might of the apartheid state and win – however qualified and gradual our victory.
Victory against oppression is not an event, but a long, difficult and often momentarily disappointing process.
Our capacity to endure their worst and still emerge victorious was underlined by the fact that 10 years of incarceration had not broken my brother physically, even though he was quite skinny – something over which my mother voiced her disapproval loudly, sadly and, in retrospect, hilariously.
I developed a clear understanding of the sheer capacity of the human body to endure and survive incarceration and torture.
The preservation of one’s physical being cannot – ever – be an excuse to not fight for justice, even against an apparently invincible force.
This lesson from my brother was to stand me in good stead as the same regime jailed me and many others, without trial, for long periods at Diepkloof Prison more than two decades later in the mid-1980s.
This time it was his turn to find me in prison.
I was in awe of the fact that his incarceration had not destroyed his capacity for personal development.
He had completed his matric and his junior degree while he was incarcerated.
This was perhaps one of the most inspiring attributes that struck me about him.
As he settled in at home and continued his law studies, my little self sat right beside his desk and studied beside him, very often right through the night.
My only limitation was that I did not have enough homework to keep up
Industry was a quality my father demanded of all of us.
Dikgang epitomised industry. In time, it was to show in the various assignments he had to undertake throughout his colourful career.
I did not know at the time that I would need to complete my own legal studies at Wits while I was jailed by the same apartheid regime many years later. I had more than enough inspiration from him to see this through.
In 1975, when he asked Khabo for her hand in marriage, I had the dubious honour of placing the engagement ring on her finger on his behalf and delivering his speech in his stead because he was not allowed to be there – he was still banned.
Even this false start could not ruin their 41 years of marriage.
It was in their home that I found succour when I was myself served with a restriction order on my own release from prison, years later.
A whole generation of lawyers, including myself, was greatly inspired
by the establishment of his law firm in partnership with now justices George Maluleke, Willie Seriti and Ntendeya Mavundla. Theirs was a progressive law firm that was to later serve as an inspiration for the establishment of my own law firm much later.
Dikgang’s tenure at the bar and on the Bench has been sparkling. He has represented many – from freedom fighters to businesspeople – most ably and the law reports are awash with his thoughtful and well-crafted judgments.
I was always warmed by his intellectual bias in favour of the weak and vulnerable while staying true to our developing and progressive constitutional jurisprudence, which came with both possibilities and limitations.
A quality that most closely competes with his grit, industry and intellect must be integrity – that rare commitment to, always, do the right thing, however inconvenient or costly.
The best way to live, he would say to me when I needed to hear it, is to assume that everything you say is on loudspeaker and everything you do is recorded.
His most abiding quality, if patriotism is a personal quality, is that he loves his country and its people above all else. The easiest way to irk or pain him is to question his love for his country and people.
A moment that sticks out as the most hurtful and vile, perhaps competing with his unjust incarceration, is his characterisation as a “counter-revolutionary” by some in the ANC.
This accusation filled me – as one who served in the inaugural ANC executive in the then PWV province with Kgalema Motlanthe, Tokyo Sexwale, Frene Ginwala, Paul Mashatile and others – with overwhelming shame and disbelief.
The only consolation I could offer him was to assure him that the ANC that refers to him as counter-revolutionary is not the ANC of our people of old, the ANC of Oliver Tambo. It is not that ANC.
Thankfully, the ANC has quietly dropped this characterisation.
This is not enough.
The ANC owes him and the many judges it has so insulted a public and unequivocal apology.
The greatest farewell gift we can give this great son of the soil as he hangs up his tired robes for the last time is to ensure that the state, in the many ways in which it manifests, always serves one master and only one master – the people – without fail. Always.