When you are lord chief justice a spot of self-deprecation tends to go unnoticed. After all, you’ve reached the top of the tree, have an unimpeachable track record and everybody hangs on your every word. Nobody’s going to take seriously your claim that you have made the most stupid observation of a whole five-day conference.

But that’s precisely what Lord Judge did at the Commonwealth Law Conference earlier this month. In the opening words of his speech to the assembled lawyers from every corner of the Commonwealth he made what he described as the ‘daftest observation of the conference’.

What he actually said was ‘this meeting has taken place in South Africa’. The observation might be ‘obvious’, he added, but it also marks a ‘triumph’ because: ‘This (conference) has happened here in South Africa where, not so very long ago, the colour of your skin, not your qualities as a human being, decided everything about the life that you would lead, and the human company that you could keep, in a country where the law itself negated the principle of equality before the law.’

He was referring, of course, to apartheid and the laws passed by otherwise humane people sitting as members of South Africa’s parliament. They legalised discrimination, making sure, for example, that black children didn’t receive as good an education as their white contemporaries - after all, they reasoned, you wouldn’t want some uppity kaffir to get ideas beyond his station.

But I digress from Lord Judge’s speech. He went on to quote a prime minister of South Africa who, at the height of the apartheid era, said: ‘Over my dead body will we allow a black man, a coloured man, an Indian man to become a Springbok, whether it be in rugby, cricket, football, you name it.’

It beggars belief that the premier of a mainstream country could say such a thing. Or does it?

I lived in southern Africa while apartheid was still going strong. I met Boers from down south, embittered white Zimbabweans and witnessed all types of unthinking racism. There was the white woman from Zimbabwe who didn’t mind that the penicillin was out of date and probably dangerous because ‘it is only for my garden boy’.

There was the white man from South Africa who watched an operetta performed by a mixed cast and was oblivious to the attractive black woman who took one of the lead roles because ‘they are like cows in the field to me’.

And there were friends of ours from the UK, the husband white British and the wife Hong Kong Chinese. She was allowed ‘honorary white’ status in South Africa, but their children were mixed race – and in theory couldn’t live in the same neighbourhood of Johannesburg as their parents. You would laugh, if it didn’t make you cry.

That was the historical context of Lord Judge’s speech and the marvel that things could have changed so much. The changes have come about in part thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, set up after apartheid was abolished.

This commission gave a voice to the victims of gross human rights violations. It also gave the perpetrators a chance to give testimony in exchange for being allowed to request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution.

Lord Judge in his speech called for ‘eternal vigilance’, telling delegates that they must ‘never take the rule of law for granted’ because even the democratic process ‘can be subverted’ to allow dictators to take power. This is what happened in Nazi Germany, he said, when Adolf Hitler was democratically voted into office.

It also happened in South Africa, where apartheid was deemed ‘lawful’, Lord Judge said, because it sprung from laws ‘enacted by the body in the constitution vested with responsibility for creating the law’. But it was ‘state terrorism’, a law that ‘perverted the very simple principle that we are all equal before the law’.

He ended his speech with reminding delegates that the rule of law meant that the ‘poor man at his gate’ is entitled to treatment equal to that of a president or prime minister. He said: ‘The judge must be blind to prejudice: impartial, fair, balanced with a true appreciation of the common humanity which binds us all and which we have all – everyone of us – inherited. In that way we ensure equality before the law.’

Which was not a ‘daft’ observation at all.

Jonathan Rayner is a reporter at the Gazette

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