News and Information
Strydom: a figure of trust, wisdom and decency
|October 22, 2004
| WERNER MENGES
IN former Chief Justice Johan Strydom, Namibia's judiciary had - and has now lost - not only a widely respected jurist, but an unassumingly exemplary human being.
In court, the retired Justice Strydom was a figure of authority easily deserving of respect - the quintessential example of someone who spoke softly, but carried a big judicial stick.
For more than 21 years - first as a Judge in the then South West Africa High Court, thereafter in the High Court of Namibia, and ultimately in the Supreme Court of Namibia over the past five years as the country's third Chief Justice since Independence - he established himself as one of the, if not the, most trusted figures in the country's judiciary.
And now, a little beyond the age of 66 - still relatively young by Judges' standards - he has hung up his robes for the last time.
He is retiring, the unreserved degree of respect that he enjoys among Namibia's lawyers still intact and with not a hint of impropriety having been levelled against him in his years on the bench.
ON THE COURTS As he takes his leave from the judiciary, he does not foresee returning to it in, for instance, a capacity as an Acting Judge of Appeal - even though that is the sort of offer that has been made to him, Strydom says.
The established practice just is that once a Chief Justice retires, he would not return to the same bench in another capacity, he explains.
"My feeling is, I've had 40 good years in the legal profession.
The legal profession was good to me, so let me make a clean break and go in another direction."
He will, however, remain available to give advice if needed, and is willing to help in other areas where he might be needed, he adds.
As it is, there is some feeling of nostalgia and he will miss the work and stimulation that especially his time sitting on appeals in the Supreme Court offered, but he is not leaving with a heavy heart or with foreboding of trouble or imminent danger facing the country's Judges, he says.
"Do you feel our judiciary is safe?" he is asked.
His answer comes without hesitation.
I have a lot of trust in that, really.
A lot of the members - most of the members - have also already clearly demonstrated their independence in cases they've heard."
And he has never experienced interference with the judiciary, he answers without hesitation as well.
"Never did anyone even make a suggestion to me that could amount to any interference," he states.
In his time on the bench there has indeed been criticism of the judiciary, or more specifically of some decisions taken by Judges, and sometimes severe criticism, too.
But criticism in itself is not wrong, as long as it does not scandalise the court by, for example, ascribing motives to a Judge or questioning his or her honesty and integrity, he says.
Judges are responsible and accountable for what they do, and as such are not above criticism.
But then criticism must be reasonable and may not impair the administration of justice, Strydom explains.
He has some concerns about the country's justice system, though, the former Chief Justice says.
On the level of the Supreme Court and the High Court, adjustments have to be made to make the courts more accessible to people.
Especially the matter of costs, which are a major limitation to people's access to the courts, is concerning him.
To address this, the court rules can be adjusted, and the State's provision of legal aid may have to be expanded, he suggests.
The situation in the country's Magistrate Courts is desperate and has him very worried, and he would hope that something real would be done to address that state of affairs, Strydom continues.
"It is as if there is a lack of dedication.
The law must be a calling; it must not just be a career.
That thought must also take root more strongly among Magistrates.
There are definitely some of them who are outstanding, but then there are also some ...
"I've said, those who are dedicated and who pull their weight, reward them, but those who don't want to do it - get rid of them."
THE SUPREME LAW For anyone looking for an example of dedication to the law, Strydom's 40-year legal career should more than suffice.
Of that, just short of 20 years was spent practising as an advocate, before he took up a post as a Judge in early 1983.
Asked about memorable cases that he was involved in as a member of the judiciary, he quickly turns to matters that concern human rights.
Pre-Independence Namibia got its first version of a bill of rights in 1985, and the High Court soon had to start adjudicating cases with a human rights dimension as well.
"To me, that was an immensely interesting time.
And I must say in that time especially a man like (retired Judge) Harold Levy, who was more liberal-minded, could give us all good guidance.
Also a man like (former Chief Justice) Hans Berker."
As a result of the cases involving the interpretation of the bill of rights they had to deal with in those days, Namibia had a Constitution with a proper human rights chapter by the time Independence arrived.
In addition, the court was already to some extent schooled in the interpretation of a bill of rights, he says.
Cases with a dimension of constitutional interpretation are also the ones that stand out for him as memorable from his time on the bench after Independence, he adds.
Here he recalls cases such as one where the Supreme Court declared the use of leg chains to restrain prisoners as unconstitutional.
With that decision, Namibia became more progressive with regard to the use of such measures than even countries like South Africa and the United Stated, Strydom acknowledges.
He explains:"What was very important for me there, was that there were so many other alternative methods, in this modern era, that could be applied and with which one could get the same results without creating such an absolutely humiliating situation where a man has to jump like an animal with leg irons."
THE DEATH SENTENCE Before Independence, he was unlucky enough to have had to impose the death sentence a couple of times, Strydom recalls.
It is not an easy thing to do, but sometimes one had no other choice.
"The moment you walk into that case, you feel the atmosphere of tension - that this is going to result in something.
It is really not a decision that you take easily.
You really look for extenuating circumstances, and if you would be able to avoid it in one or other way, I don't think you would readily impose the death penalty.
But then there are other cases, where people had acted so brutally," he says, recalling one such case, where two people had been shot dead in cold blood and left lying in the veld.
He imposed the death sentence on one of the accused people in that case, Strydom relates.
"It bothers you, but you also feel that actually, as an upholder of the law, you also have to make this illustration of it."
He personally is glad that the death penalty has been abolished, Strydom says.
He was also fortunate that in those cases where he had imposed the death sentence, he did not refuse leave to appeal to a higher court, he remembers.
In each case, the then Appellate Division confirmed his sentence.
FARMING BECKONS As he takes his leave of the bench, he has a Kalahari farm in the Leonardville area to look forward to.
He bought the land in February last year, and plans to spend his time between the farm and Windhoek.
In the current atmosphere of plans for land ownership reform, he is, now as a landowner himself, quite confident about the future.
But, he adds:"I would just have preferred that Government should more clearly spell out its policy of how it would be doing these things.
At some stage there was quite a bit of clarity about what, and in what order, things were to be done.
But this has blurred somewhat, and I think this has caused quite some uncertainty.
If this can be rectified, I am full of courage."
Ever a modest man, Strydom says he will not be writing after his retirement.
"I don't have that disciplined mind; if I had to write it would be a total jumble," he says - appearing to forget that just a few days earlier his successor as Acting Chief Justice, Simpson Mtambanengwe, had still been lauding the clarity and directness of the judgements that he had written in his two decades on the bench.
Then again, Justice Mtambanengwe had also noted another "sterling quality" in the colleague he had known over the past 10 years:his "endless humility".
It was easy to see what Justice Mtambanengwe was referring to when Strydom granted an interview to The Namibian on Monday.
He was found in one of the Judges' chambers at the Supreme Court, where he was still finishing off judgements that remained pending from his tenure as Acting Chief Justice over the past 15 months.
There are no false airs and graces about retired Justice Strydom, it was evident.
Dressed in comfortable khaki clothes and velskoen-style leather shoes, he was approachable and at ease, in return quickly putting an interviewer at ease, too.
He looked just the part of someone who is ready to do justice to some serious farming.
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