The annual John Paul Stevens Lecture at the University of Colorado Law School, held online this year, featured a pioneering South African jurist who encouraged American lawyers and judges to look abroad to animate Constitutional values. Justice Zak Yacoob, who served on his country’s Constitutional Court for 15 years, also suggested the U.S. rethink its judicial confirmation system.
Speaking to an online audience estimated by Byron White Center for the Study of Constitutional Law director Suzette Malveaux to include hundreds of Zoom watchers, Yacoob, 72, emphasized that law is fundamentally a tool to preserve or achieve representative government but that it cannot take the place of public engagement. He said in apartheid South Africa, the successful effort to build a multi-racial democracy would not have been possible without that perspective. “The fundamental weapon is the organization and mobilization of people, the raising of people’s consciousness and making sure that the hearts and minds of people are changed,” Yacoob said.
A veteran participant in the African National Congress, during his years in law practice Yacoob represented the Durban Six in 1984, countrymen accused by the White government of treason in the Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980s and defendants in the Vula trial of 1990-1991. He spoke of the importance of the ANC’s decades-long effort to achieve individual rights for all South Africans and urged Americans to consider that a constitution can only reflect the time in which it was written. “The Constitution is as good as when it was produced,” Yacoob said. “If our Constitution was produced in 1786, for example, it would look very different than what it looked like in 1996.”