A missed opportunity for Africa? . . . as ILO plum job eludes trail-blazing judge

Moses Magadza

Recently news from Botswana media indicated that Justice Oagile Key Dingake, a Motswana now serving as an international judge abroad, was one of the three short-listed candidates Botswana was considering fielding for the then vacant post of Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Secretary General of the Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPUSO), Tobokani Rari, was quoted as saying they had been consulted on who was the best candidate Botswana could field and they held out the name of Dingake, one of the most revered and respected jurists in the world.

The other candidate was Dr Athalia Molokomme, former Judge of the High Court of Botswana and Attorney General and now Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Botswana to the United Nations and other international organisations.

According to newspaper reports, some people felt that Dingake had immense potential to hoist his country’s national flag and land this significant post. Regardless, Botswana did not to field a candidate.

Well-placed sources say this does not in any way mean that Dingake, who is held in high esteem far and wide, was snubbed. What appears to have worked against him are geo-political considerations.

Over the years Botswana has received the backing of SADC countries to run for the Chairmanship of the African Union. Recently the country successfully lobbied SADC for its citizen – Mr. Elias Magosi, formerly Permanent Secretary to the President – to head the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Some observers feel it would have been a big ask for Botswana to once again ask SADC, as a sub-regional body, to back her candidate for the ILO top job at the expense of other countries that may have been interested.

Indeed, geo-political considerations may have prompted South Africa to withdraw her candidate. In fact, after South Africa withdrew her candidate, the African Union issued a statement congratulating South Africa for demonstrating the spirit of Pan-Africanism and African solidarity. The candidate that the AU has now endorsed to run for the post is Mr. Gilbert Houngbo of Togo.

Regardless, some people who have worked with and have come to know Justice Dingake see this as a missed opportunity for Africa. Possibly for good reason. Justice Dingake is revered across the globe for his incisive mind and progressive jurisprudence.

A humble man of letters, he holds a PhD from Africa’s foremost academic blast furnace, the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Additionally, he holds double Professorships from the University of Cape Town and James Cook University in Australia.

He enjoys deep respect among civil society across Africa. It is safe to say that had he succeeded in landing this post, he would most likely have ushered unprecedented unity of purpose amongst African civil societies.

Dingake currently chairs a powerful African Think Tank on HIV, Human Rights and Health under the auspices of UNAIDS. Furthermore, he is the President of the Africa Regional Judges Forum (ARJF) convened under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

It must mean something that Dingake’s peers at UCT once recommended he consider running for the post of United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Lawyers and judges. Imbued with courage, humility and jurisprudential brilliance, Dingake has throughout his career exhibited the unalloyed passion to expand the boundaries of law to embrace the common person, the disadvantaged and marginalised.

In one of his celebrated cases that made international headlines – Mmusi v Ramatele, which concerned a woman who approached the court complaining that she was not allowed to inherit her family home because she was a woman – Dingake put his foot down. In nullifying the offensive customary law complained about, he spoke metaphorically and philosophically of the “justices of the court assuming the role of mid-wives to birth a new and better society based on equality struggling to be born”.

In the case of Botswana Landboards and Local Authorities Workers Union v the Attorney General, his philosophical approach once again shone brightly. He famously equated a strike to a boxing match in which the parties, involved in a power play, try to hurt each other as much as possible, and warned that the court as referee should not intervene in a manner that disadvantages the other.

Concluding a 70-page treatise in the above case, he concluded by ordering the government to reinstate all public officers who were dismissed on the 16th of May 2011. He further ordered the affected workers – running into hundreds if not thousands – to report to work “within 14 days” from the date of the order.

It was in this same judgement in which the “intellectually charged judge” as Zimbabwean lawyer Arnold Tsunga, then with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), once described Dingake, that he observed that: “Every era has its mood and the jurists for that mood.”

In his many extra –curricula speeches at international and regional conferences on labour matters (and they are countless) he is known for the tagline: “labour is not a commodity” and for reciting the Philadelphia Declaration that birthed the ILO whose “Decent Work” agenda he associates with.

Those who worked closely with Dingake say he is a great leader, a jurist and is humane – capable of interacting with the weak and mighty but treating them as equal. One of his judicial colleagues at the High Court in Lobatse and Gaborone, once said Dingake was revered and loved “by staff and colleagues alike – especially workers in the lower strata.”

On the academic and research fronts, his contribution to constitutional law in Botswana has been widely acknowledged. It can be said without fear of contradiction that Dingake’s passion for fairness and justice – wherever in the world he has presided, be it in Botswana, Papua New Guinea or in Seychelles, has been manifest from his judgements and extra –curricula speeches.

From his illustrious and trail-blazing career, it is safe to say that had he been appointed ILO Director General, Dingake would have served this great body well.

Having been privileged to report about the work done by Justice Dingake for more than a decade and read many of his writings including books, I remain optimistic that one day the continent will find the most beneficial way of harnessing this intellectual giant’s passion and expertise.

– Moses Magadza is a communications practitioner, composer and a PhD in Media Studies student.

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