[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
EASTERN Cape Judge President Cecil “Doc” Somyalo – considered by many to be a judicial pioneer – has retired.
After more than 15 years on the bench and 10 years as Judge President, Somyalo, 71, says he is looking forward to taking it easy.
He has been described as a unifier of the once-fractured provincial high court system, and a stern but fair judge.
In his own words, he said he had “travelled a long way” from the young man who was once part of an “illegal” black firm of attorneys in Port Elizabeth at a time when black people were prohibited from forming companies or partnerships.
Somyalo chalked up many “firsts” in South Africa’s judicial history, and the pressure to succeed made him all the greater for it.
He was the country’s first attorney to be appointed as a judge when, in 1995, he ascended to the Transkei bench. Until then, judges were traditionally drawn from the ranks of senior advocates.
After just two-and-a-half years, he became the country’s first black Judge President of the Transkei division.
He successfully headed up the Transkei division until 1999 when he became the first black Judge President of the Eastern Cape division headquartered in Grahamstown.
Long-time colleague Judge Jeremy Pickering describes him as a “remarkable man” who has “great strength of character combined with humility”.
“He gained respect and affection from everyone with whom he worked and inspired loyalty in all the judges.
“He moulded everyone – from all three divisions – into a team where everybody went the extra mile because of him.”
Somyalo speaks just as affectionately of his colleagues and says the assistance, support and loyalty he received from his fellow judges and administrative staff “cannot be measured”.
Somyalo’s love for the law was born when he interpreted for a white firm of attorneys during his school holidays in Qumbu.
“It was a job for which I was never paid,” he adds with a twinkle.
He first became a teacher before going on to study law. Together with Dumile Kondile, who later also became a judge, he set up a legal practice above an old cinema in New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth.
Somyalo says his greatest challenge as Judge President was bringing together the Bhisho, Mthatha and Eastern Cape divisions split by their artificial apartheid jurisdictions.
“There was quite a lot of acrimony and conflict and things weren’t looking good at all,” he said.
As part of the court rationalisation process, Somyalo was, in 2003, made acting Judge President of the Bhisho and Transkei divisions as well.
“It wasn’t easy. The way I dealt with it was to be very frank, open and transparent so that everyone knew there was no hidden agenda.”
But right up until his retirement, the Superior Courts Act, aimed at legislating the rationalisation of the courts, remained in draft form, making unification of the three courts in real terms impossible.
Somyalo’s wife, Lungiswa, has also just retired after spending a lifetime working in the health sector.
While she was already showing signs of lining up some “flexitime” work for her retirement, Somyalo said he intended doing as “little as possible” for a very long time.
“I have worked my whole life. I am sure I will find something useful and enjoyable to do but I have no plans beyond the (soccer) World Cup right now.” – By ADRIENNE CARLISLEBACK TO TOP