Justice Kathleen Satchwell is a retired Judge of the High Court.
For over four decades, Justice Kathleen Satchwell has been a diligent champion of human rights, and a resilient fighter on behalf of those denied such rights. This includes the rights of political detainees, conscientious objectors, victims of the pass laws and more recently, the rights of same-sex partners, or rape victims, among others.
This passion for human rights activism began during her time in Grahamstown from 1969 to 1978. First as a Rhodes University student while studying African languages and anthropology; reading and discussing banned books; joining the liberal national student organisation, NUSAS, and becoming Students Representative Council (SRC) president in 1971 – a position she resigned from, in protest, along with the entire SRC a year later.
During her final four years in Grahamstown, Justice Satchwell was involved in a large variety of activities including working at the university library, teaching during the day at the Diocesan School for Girls, and at the town’s technical college in the evening; serving as a volunteer and then as co-ordinator in the local Black Sash office; and in 1978, running a programme of support for detainees in eastern Cape prisons.
While fully engaged in all these activities she studied part-time, through UNISA, for a law degree – the foundation of her eventual position as a high court judge.
Human rights issues continued to occupy much of her time when working as an attorney in Johannesburg in the 1980s and 1990s.
She represented persons detained under security legislation and emergency regulations; acted on behalf of young men refusing to perform military service; appeared before the Publications Appeal Board to challenge censorship; and served as an attorney in high-profile political trials, such as representing Jeff Radebe when he was on hunger strike on Robben Island, and the prisoner exchange that led to the release of Dutch anti-apartheid activist Klaas de Jonge. During this time, she was active in two important anti-apartheid legal organisations: Lawyers for Human Rights, and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers.
Since late 1996, she has been a high court judge in the Transvaal Provincial Division – the first woman to be appointed to the position in this division. The same year, she gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the role of the legal system in contributing to violations of human rights under apartheid.
About fifty of her judgements have been written up in various South African law reports. President Mandela in 1999 appointed Judge Satchwell to chair a commission of inquiry into the operation of the road accident fund – a massive undertaking that involved extensive research, widespread consultations across the world, and writing up a comprehensive 1500-page report. This eventually came to be known as the Satchwell Commission.
In 2001, the year she was appointed a judge, she brought a landmark case that ensures equal treatment for same-sex couples in the judiciary. The Constitutional Court ruled in her favour, granting this right, thereby according such benefits to her partner, Lesley Carnelley.
In 2010, Justice Satchwell was conferred a degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from Rhodes University, and appointed a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
Judge Kathleen Satchwell's Acceptance Speech:
Thank you for this honour . I do apologise that I cannot be here to express my thanks in person but I am seconded to the High Court in Johannesburg for just one month which prevents me from taking any time off from court to travel down to the Eastern Cape. I must also confess that my beloved partner, Lesley, died in December and I still find it difficult to feel celebratory without her beside me.
I did want to say that I feel that this award to myself is not particulary deserved. I think of so many of my contemporaries who have distinguished themselves and this university by their service and contribution to our society. I know teachers who have brought kindness and learning to young people in both public and private schools. I think of writers and artists who have made us think and appreciate new ways of looking at our world. I know fellow students who have protected our natural environment and others who have developed amazing new technologies. I have many contemporaries who have not used their Rhodes training or qualifications at all but have branched out anew in unthought of fields. And there are those who have brought love and happiness to their friends and families.
These are all ‘distinguished’ alumni and we all owe much to a small university in a small town tucked away in a valley where we were welcomed into a cosy and friendly collegial system of fellowship . Some of us may have staggered out of bed and sat mindlessly through lectures but we had tutorials where we had to think and speak and a library where we gathered and gossiped and read whatever took our fancy. We studied and often played too hard. We also sometimes struggled – in our personal and political lives. And all this was done within the nurturing environment of a special academic institution which truly developed the whole person.
Thank you Rhodes University, on behalf of so many who were given much by this university.