How did you find your first few years in the UK?
I found the UK a very hospitable place and I feel very grateful that my wife and I were both very warmly welcomed here. I was a bit distressed when I first came that some of the problems in South Africa, such as racial discrimination, still existed but race relations seem to have improved over the years.
What are your memories of growing up during apartheid?
For a white child at that time… there was a certain delight in living in a country of sunshine and open spaces and unrivalled beauty, but there was always that dreadful shadow that this life of freedom was reserved to a very small part of the population. Somehow or other, one picked up from an early age that this was just unfair and I always remember that feeling that although things seemed absolutely idyllic on one level for me personally, there was a great injustice in the fact that it didn’t apply to children of my age with dark skin.
Do you think that experience influenced your decision to study law?
Yes, very much so, because law is the framework that protects human dignity and promotes constitutional democracy and without that protection for the individual you move very quickly to tyranny.
How does life in Britain differ to life in South Africa?
On the whole, Britain is unique in that it observes the rule of law. There’s the opportunity of the individual to challenge decisions made by government. There’s a free press and these are just virtues that people in this country tend to take for granted. That doesn’t mean to say one must not be vigilant… everyone ought to play a part in showing that those values which define and reflect this country, should be maintained.
What are your current concerns for human rights in South Africa?
There are some danger signals; for example… there have been threats to the freedom of the press. There have been threats to the independence of the judiciary and the independence of the legal profession. And there is a great deal of corruption… but on the whole it is still very much a functioning democracy. All the elections since 1994 have been peaceful. There’s a great deal of wealth redistribution still to be done but the black middle class is growing. There’s still a way to go but I’m optimistic.
How would you describe your relationship with South Africa now?
I’ve always maintained contact with South Africa, partly because my parents and some of my family were there and we’d go back and visit them at least once a year. And then in 1990, for the first time I went there professionally to teach as a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town. It was there that I began to be involved in some of the early meetings and discussions about South Africa’s new constitution. I love South Africa. I feel completely at home there and I am lucky to feel completely at home here. On the other hand, I’ve never lived as a grown-up in South Africa, I left in my student days… and I think it’s slightly different if you leave at that stage to someone who’s worked there as an adult. I think it’s easier to make the break and then to adapt to the country that you move to. I miss most… snoek… Peppermint Crisp… and Anchovette.
Where has your work taken you recently?
I represented as a barrister the last of the white farmers in Zimbabwe. It was the most searing case I’ve ever done…it was amazing that these people were filming it all the way through [for the film Mugabe and the White African], but while they were out there, the farmers were invaded and they were beaten up to within an inch of their lives. I’d never had clients beaten up during a case. As a lawyer one shouldn’t really identify too strongly with one’s clients because you then lose objectivity but I couldn’t help it in this case because they were obviously the good guys.
I do a lot all over the world… but if you ask: ‘Is that because of my South African background?’ My South African background is etched in my mind. There are terrible things that can happen to people if a country doesn’t give them a voice…and doesn’t respect human dignity.
Katherine Purvis 2013