‘I was a racist, but soon saw the light’
Retired Justice Zak Yacoob reflects on his pursuit of blind justice with Charl du Plessis.
I used to be a racist, says retired Justice Zak Yacoob.
“I thought that if the Indian and coloured guys tried hard enough, they could be like the white guys.”
Hardly something one would expect to hear from a former Constitutional Court Justice who was appointed to the Bench by Nelson Mandela and who has played an indispensable role in the development of constitutional jurisprudence in South Africa.
But for Yacoob, this was the bizarre, racialised reality for a blind Indian boy attending the School for the Blind in 1960s apartheid South Africa.
Yacoob lost his sight to meningitis when he was 16 months old.
“I was a racist, actually, because the only white people I had met were clever guys who used to be school inspectors or subject advisers,” he said.
Dressed in a grey suit and crimson tie, Yacoob is sitting on a beige couch in his dimly lit chambers at the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein.
The bare walls and the monotony of the rows and rows of blue law reports make the large South African flag the main feature of Yacoob’s stark chambers.
His journey from racism to this office was sparked by apartheid practices.
“Government policy in those days was that all lecturers, and particularly Afrikaners, who were not good enough for mainstream university because they were really quite stupid, were sent to universities for African, coloured and Indian people.
“I got to my first lecture at university and said: ‘Hawu! A stupid white man!’ That’s how things began to change for me.”
Shortly thereafter, Yacoob said, he was recruited into the ANC underground at the University of Durban-Westville by Pravin Gordhan, now South Africa’s finance minister.
Surrounded by debates on Marxism and nonracialism, Yacoob “soon realised this racism thing was nonsense”.
“I realised that unless I committed myself to getting rid of it, I would not be myself,” said Yacoob.
Between July 1973 and May 1991, he was involved in representing those who contravened the oppressive security legislation of the apartheid regime, including being part of the defence team in the treason trial of the Delmas Four.
The case, captured in Peter Harris’ 2008 book, In a Different Time, tells the story of four Umkhonto weSizwe hit squad members who were sentenced to death, but who blew the lid on the apartheid death squads.
Yacoob also served as a commissioner on the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 elections and was a legal adviser to the Constitutional Assembly in the early 1990s.
Human rights lawyer George Bizos said Yacoob “knew the draft Constitution so well that I was absolutely amazed”.
“If someone suggested a particular paragraph should be amended . . . Zak would put up his hand and say: ‘That may be so, but if we adopt the proposal it would be in conflict with paragraph 69(3)(2)’.”
That turn of phrase would be familiar to lawyers who have, over the years, had to face one of Yacoob’s characteristic interrogations from the Bench.
Yacoob’s fingers would fly across court affidavits, printed in Braille by a special printer, before asking a penetrating question that would, more often than not, leave a carefully structured legal argument in tatters.
After his question, Yacoob would plunge his forehead into his hand and listen intently to the answer with his eyes closed.
Asked what he thinks of the state of the nation, Yacoob says there are serious problems, but things are probably not as dire as they are made out to be.
“There are societies where corrupt people never get caught. So for me, every time corruption is discovered, I feel our transparency has resulted in something positive,” he says.
“If I can do anything about making a contribution to picking up this problem and making sure people talk about it, I will.”
Yacoob’s attitude is indicative of the way he has lived his life – without expecting any quarter for what most would perceive as a disability.
One of the few ornaments on his uncluttered desk is a baseball. Asked why he has it, he says it’s because he loves cricket and baseball.
He says one of his best holidays was when he was in Cape Town for the New Year’s cricket test last year.
Being blind also led Yacoob to his wife, who introduced herself to him at university when he was lost.
He has two very successful grown children. One followed in her father’s footsteps to become an advocate, while the other is a scientist who works on the Large Hadron Particle Collider at Cern.
Yacoob traces it all back to the way his Muslim cleric father treated him.
“My father said I was going to be treated strictly despite the fact that I couldn’t see. I think that was the beginning of who I was,” he says.
“I don’t know what it is to see. For me, this has been a normal life.”
But I think to myself, even if Yacoob could see, his life would still not have been just a “normal” one.