Close to two decades ago, I was sitting at the back of a crowded University of Botswana student union hall, listening to students fumbling for a way out of a sticky mess… what was it that time?
Nkomati Accord? A pending student strike action? A plan to topple the student government? While stifling a yawn, I glanced over my shoulder in time to catch a wiry young man with a streak of arrogance who described himself as “the most feared man in this school” reaching out for the mike.
When he stood down, the packed student union hall had a perfect plan. Key, as his name suggests, is to the manner born. All students would tell you, one word from Comrade Key is worth a thousand cheques.
Twenty years later, mention the name Justice Key Dingake, who has been appointed to preside over suspended BDP secretary General Gomolemo Motswaledi’s court action, and the words “safe pair of hands” are never far behind.
Justice Dingake grew up in a landscape and milieu I knew well, the spartan, intense world of former Botswana National Front (BNF) president Kenneth Koma’s left wing politics, in a “progressive” university setting that had no tolerance for dissenting views which were branded “reactionary”. High seriousness, and a preference for intellectual rhetoric were the hallmarks of that world. Yet somehow, Justice Dingake emerged with many of the values more characteristic of liberal democrats. In a country where the leadership is now a mixture of former “progressives” and former “reactionaries” it is good to have a judge who is himself a personal union of the two.
“He has both considerable integrity and a pragmatic sense of what’s going to work. He can take on board a range of entrenched opinions and yet reach a consensus. He’s worldly wise,” says a former political colleague and lawyer.
The brief for his latest assignment is to determine whether President Lt Gen Ian Khama was right in suspending Botswana Democratic Secretary General, Gomolemo Motswaledi, from the party. Most legal and political watchers are convinced Justice Dingake is the right man for the job.
Google Key Dingake, and the internet search engine turns up more than one thousand entries ranging from bookfinder.com list of books he has authored on politics and law in southern Africa to some of the groundbreaking judgments he has delivered.
Dingake obtained his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) from the University of Botswana (UB) and proceeded to do his Masters degree in commercial and corporate law at the University of London. He currently holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town.
He started his career as a private legal practitioner, specializing in labour law. He also argued a number of leading constitutional cases. In 1995 he defended Molepolole College of Education students who were challenging the constitutionality of the school’s regulations which disqualified pregnant female student from attending school while allowing male students who impregnated them to continue with classes. He also represented Bakwena regent, Kgari Sechele, during the Bakwena Chieftainship crisis.
Dingake later joined UB as a lecturer in commercial law, human rights and trial practice. While at the UB, he published a number of books, including Key Aspects of the Constitutional Law of Botswana, Administrative Law in Botswana: Cases, Materials and Commentaries, HIV/AIDS and Human Rights in Botswana. His name also graces a number of acclaimed law reports.
In 2000, he joined the Motor Vehicle Accident Fund (MVAF) which he served for a year as deputy chief executive officer until appointed Industrial Court judge by President Festus Mogae the following year. In 2005 he was appointed to the High Court bench where he has earned a reputation as a progressive judge who has a bias for civil liberties.
He is among a few Batswana who have dared speak out against intolerance of homosexuality in the country. At a University of Botswana panel Discussion a few years ago, Justice Dingake lamented that Botswana’s society is “ extremely intolerant” and that it is offensive to democratic principle of tolerance” to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Two years ago at a conference in Tanzania championing legislation to protect people living with HIV/AIDS, Justice Dingake told delegates the SADC region is characterized by an ‘epidemic of laws’1′ on HIV and AIDS. This situation suggests that one of the most daunting and urgent tasks of SADC parliamentarians is to enact appropriate wide ranging HIV and AIDS legislation so as to best protect those persons who are infected or affected by HIV and AIDS and indeed those persons who may not be HIV positive. He advanced the view that the situation of the ‘epidemic of laws’ has imposed a burden on the courts to fashion appropriate remedies. It was therefore incumbent on SADC parliamentarians to fast track the process of legislation on HIV and AIDS in order to protect many of their citizens whose rights are being violated. In so doing, parliaments could have regard to international legal instruments on HIV and AIDS.
His commitment protects civil liberties and has also won him a lot of support among champions of press freedom and freedom of expression.
Justice Key Dingake in the case of Ocaya v The Voice had this to say: “It must also be emphasized that freedom of expression is not only applicable to dissemination of information and ideas that are favourably received, but to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population.
Such, it has also been said, are the dictates of pluralism, tolerance and broad mindedness, without which there is no democratic society.”
Journalists are at the centre of the propagation of press freedom. It is through the writings and broadcastings by journalist that information reaches the wider population. We tune in to news everyday and buy newspaper to read the stories and advise ourselves of the latest, the product of a journalist.
That is why the profession of journalism becomes essential when violations of press freedom come to the fore. It has been held that the profession of journalism ÔÇô the thing journalist does ÔÇô involves precisely the seeking, receiving and imparting of information. The practice of journalism consequently requires a person to engage in activities that define or embrace the freedom of expression, which the Constitution guarantees. Now the question that I will address in the next issue is whether journalists could be protected even when they disparage people’s reputation and write rumours about them.