Son of Steenberg’s drive for justice

Judge Taswell Papier

Newly appointed judge of the Western Cape Division of the High Court, Taswell Papier, believes we all have to take collective responsibility for building a society we can be proud of.

A son of Steenberg, Judge Papier, 56, was appointed by President Jacob Zuma on Thursday November 2.

He has been practising as a lawyer for approximately 30 years and considers himself to be “passionate about justice, fairness and equity”.

“I was born in the working class suburb of Steenberg, shortly after my parents were moved from Diep River in terms of the Group Areas Act,” he said.

Having grown up during the darkest years of apartheid, experiencing racism, violence and several states of emergency, Judge Papier became determined to contribute towards eradicating the unjust system.

“I attended a careers evening, organised by our youth group while at high school, and was impressed by my engagement with the late attorney Percy Sonn, which made me think seriously about a career in law. Percy was practising in partnership with the legendary late Dullah Omar at the time.”

Judge Papier said he grew up being very aware of apartheid’s Group Areas Act; the Immorality Act, and the draconian Pass Law system and the “petty” apartheid laws that included black people not being able to go to certain restaurants or beaches or use train carriages or buses which were designated for “whites only”.

As a young lawyer with a practice in Mitchell’s Plain in the 1980s, Judge Papier defended hundreds of activists who were scholars or students or members of civic organisations and the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

He said he regularly travelled to rural towns to represent victims and activists. “I tried to assist constructively wherever possible in whatever way I could, and joined organisations like the National Association of Democratic lawyers (NADEL), a group of progressive lawyers. “We challenged unlawful actions by the state and the police, visited freedom fighters on Robben Island and in other prisons, and supported liberation movements and anti-apartheid organisations.”

He said there was still so much to be done to overcome the legacy of apartheid, to eradicate poverty and to ensure opportunities for economic upliftment.

“Education is key to this. Racism in all its forms has to be recognised and addressed – we cannot afford to look the other way. We all have to take collective responsibility for building a society of the future that we can all be proud of.”

Judge Papier said everyone has the right to make their own future decisions. “I am proud when I see young people grasping the opportunities that they can, often in spite of the odds against them. Everyone has a constructive and valuable contribution to make in building a better society for all. This we can achieve, if we choose to do so.”

Judge Papier said when he grew up he enjoyed learning karate, playing squash and badminton, and did skin-diving for a community club. “As a young boy I also enjoyed playing the piano and guitar, and in my youth was part of the Corpus Christi Catholic Church Youth Group.”

He attended Catholic schools: St Augustine’s Primary, in Wittebome, and thereafter St Columba’s, in Athlone.

When Judge Papier decided to study law, there were few options open to black students. “Here I include everyone not classified as white. I attended the University of the Western Cape (UWC) which was far from home, with poor transport systems, so I had to leave home at 4am to be in time for my 8am lectures, often having to take five trains to travel from Steenberg station to Unibel station.

“UWC gave me not only an excellent foundation for law, but a political orientation and awareness, that reinforced and underscored my passion for justice. I have since studied at Harvard Law School where I did a Master’s degree in Human Rights, and at UCT where I did a Master’s degree in Corporate Law.”

Judge Papier has been married for 28 years and has two children.

When asked what his career advice would be for the youth he said: “I would encourage those considering a career in law, firstly to be driven by a passion for justice, fairness and equity. Values of honesty, integrity and sincerity are paramount, and should not be taken for granted. They should be prepared to work hard, and embrace the reality of life-long-learning.”