Address by President Nelson Mandela at a State Banquet in honour of Chief Justice Corbett

11 December 1996

Chief Justice Corbett and Mrs. Corbett;
Deputy President Mbeki
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen.

It is my honour and particular pleasure to welcome you all.

When Chief Justice Corbett retires at the end of this month, as South Africa's 16th Chief Justice, an important chapter in our transition to democracy will have ended.

Both government, and myself personally, believe that this State occasion is a fitting expression of our nation's respect for Justice Corbett's contribution to the administration of justice; an expression of our gratitude for his role in our transition.

His contribution is not easily encompassed. He has achieved distinction as legal scholar, as writer, as advocate and as a judicial officer. Throughout his career a passion for justice and a sensitivity to racial discrimination were combined with intellectual rigour and clarity of thought.

It would demand one better versed than I in the administration of justice to pay adequate homage to his achievement. Allow me however to share with you some experiences and perspectives of my own.

I first met Michael Corbett in unpromising circumstances some 25 years ago. I was a prisoner for life. He was a junior judge on a prison visit to Robben Island.

There was a particularly unpleasant conflict between warders and prisoners, arising from a brutal beating, and I was the prisoners' spokesman.

I had no particular expectations of being believed or even listened to. The Commanding Officer tried to intimidate me. But not only did this young judge and his colleagues listen carefully to what I had to say. In my presence Judge Corbett turned to the Commanding Officer and the Commissioner of Prisons, and protested sharply to the Commissioner over the behaviour of the Commanding Officer. Such courage and independence were rare.

As I studied in prison for two law degrees, I came from time to time upon the judgements of Michael Corbett. Their incisiveness reminded me of my earlier encounter with him. So did his dissent in 1979 in the case brought against the Minister of Prisons by my co-accused in the Rivonia trial, Dennis Goldberg. Alone of the five Judges of Appeal, Michael Corbett held that the prison authorities were not entitled to apply to policy depriving prisoners of all access to news.

His judgement was scholarly, meticulous and uncompromising in the primacy it gave to important rights. I was glad to learn that in a unanimous judgement, 15 years later, the Appellate Division adopted that minority judgement.

I came to know Chief Justice Corbett a little more closely in the period leading up to my inauguration as President. Since then I have noted his valuable contribution in proposals relating to the framing of the Interim Constitution; in the process that gave us the new Constitution that yesterday became law; as well as in the long and arduous process of seeking to reflect our new, more democratic society in a transformed justice system.

I have in mind in particular his role as chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission.

The retirement we mark tonight fell due over three years ago. Twice however Michael Corbett was asked to stay on in office during the period of transition, both times with the widest political support.

On the first occasion in September 1993, the widespread respect and confidence he enjoyed led me to give my own support on behalf of the African National Congress. A year later I myself asked him, after consulting other groupings, to stay on for a further two years as Chief Justice. Such was his sense of duty that he agreed.

It is to such actions by good men and women, like Michael Corbett, in every part of our society and of every political persuasion, that we own our successful transition to democracy. One of the strengths of the new nation which we are building is that, by removing the causes of tension and conflict, it creates the space for such people to emerge and play their rightful role. It is in such conditions that the best that is in all of us can flourish. These are the circumstances that are producing a new generation of leaders for a prosperous and just society, at peace with itself.

One aspect of my task tonight I find unfortunate. It is that I am obliged to refer to advanced age as a reason to lay down high office. As I am surrounded by lawyers, you will understand it if I make it plain that whatever I have said constitutes no precedent, and may not be used against me!

It is with some sadness that we take leave of Michael Corbett as Chief Justice. One era now ends. The new era that begins will benefit from the example and inspiration of his scholarship and wisdom.

May I wish him and Mrs. Corbett peace and joy in this new stage of their lives.

It will now be my great pleasure and privilege on behalf of the government and people of South Africa to confer the Order for Meritorious Service (Gold) upon Chief Justice Corbett.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation