As a lawyer, Moosa, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, shone like a beacon through some of the bleakest times in the history of the fight against apartheid. And when that struggle was won, he continued to keep a watchful eye over events in South Africa, believing like so many other men and women of integrity that the only way to protect a young democracy is to expand freedoms and to encourage debate.
But most importantly, he was acutely aware that evil can come suddenly, and from any direction.
He was born on February 8, 1936, in District Six, Cape Town. After studying law, he started practising as a lawyer on June 1, 1962, where he quickly began to make his mark as specialist in human rights issues.
He played an especially prominent role in the fight against apartheid and the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983.
In a time that prominent officials were detained, or were forced into hiding, and when the banks were conniving with the security police to shut down bank accounts of opponents of apartheid and to steal their funds, lawyers such as Moosa helped to keep various important affiliates of the UDF running.
It was the era of the “struggle lawyer”. And the methods employed to ensure that cash was always available to, say, bail out activists who in many instances were charged with spurious offences were wonderfully innovative because they were so ridiculously simple. Often, money was carried around in flour bags and simply left on the floor of a room in someone’s house. No one asked questions – and no money went missing.
When there was no money, Moosa was one of those who dug deep into his own pockets to help those in need of funds. It was said of him then – and years later – that he never turned away anyone in need.
The two-pronged plan by the security apparatuses of the state to strangle organisations in the UDF by cutting off sources and availability of funds failed because activists such as Moosa were prepared to roll up their sleeves and to refuse to give in to intimidation.
Thus, budgets for the UDF were written up in ballpoint pen because, for obvious reasons, they couldn’t be typed out (that is how secret they were).
Unsurprisingly, visits from the security police became almost routine. But when they marched into offices on the Cape Flats, making sure their holstered firearms could be seen, they prompted well-trained staff members into immediate action: staffers called in the lawyers, and among those most frequently summoned were Essa Moosa and Associates.
Moosa and his team were quick to respond. Everyone worked on trust – and they were happy to do so because everyone involved in the struggle against the apartheid regime trusted one another.
In the more than 30 years that he served as a human rights lawyer, Moosa turned to the courts countless times to challenge human rights violations such as detention without trial , and freedom of association, expression and movement. When lawyers – especially black lawyers – themselves faced the wrath of the state for challenging apartheid’s security legislation, Moosa was a prominent figure in challenging human rights violations such as detention without trial, emergency regulations and various other “political offences”.
But it was his human touch – his “heart of gold” – which endeared him to so many of those who lives he touched.
Cape Times editor Aneez Salie, a former uMkhonto we Sizwe commander, said Moosa was one of only two people they brought to their underground headquarters. Salie added that Moosa had later sent baby clothes after his son, Haroon Gunn Salie, had been born in the underground, and funds, working closely with the Ashley Kriel Detachment.
Moosa was a member of Nelson Mandela’s legal team during the talks for his release from prison. He proved a skilful representative for the future president in the to-ing and fro-ing of negotiations, and in deciding what needed to be sent out to interested governments and the media.
After the defeat of apartheid, Moosa continued his human rights activities, including helping to found the National Association of Democratic Lawyers. He also served as the Secretary of the Constitutional Committee of the ANC, which provided logistical support to the ANC negotiation team led by Mandela for the establishment of a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.
In April 1998, Mandela appointed him as a judge of the High Court, based in Cape Town. After his retirement in April 2011, he took up the position of voluntary chairperson of the Cape Town-based Kurdish Human Rights Action Group (KHRAG), which monitors the human rights violations of the Kurdish people, particularly in Turkey but also in the Middle East.