The death of Justice Wilson Sandura, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, has been received with much sadness within the Zimbabwean legal profession and the Zimbabwean nation at large.
To those of us who revered him, and we are many, we like to think of him as the best Chief Justice that Zimbabwe never had.
Justice Sandura was a quiet and understated character who performed the best of his work far away from the cameras and the glare of publicity. Yet he is probably best known to the generality of Zimbabweans for his work in a Commission of Enquiry, which he chaired in the closing years of the first decade of independence – an enquiry which will always carry his name, the Sandura Commission. It is only fitting that this tribute recollects that landmark moment and the critical role that Justice Sandura played.
The Sandura Commission was set up by President Mugabe in 1988 to carry out an in-depth investigation into illegal transactions involving the purchase and sale of motor vehicles from Willowvale Motor Industries, a government-owned company. It was in essence a large-scale and unprecedented enquiry into grand corruption.
During that time, the importation and sale of motor vehicles was a restricted trade and demand far outstripped supply. There was a government facility for the purchase of motor vehicles from Willowvale Motor Industries. The limited availability of this cheap facility and the resulting shortage of vehicles and the long queues of potential buyers combined to create enormous rent-seeking opportunities for those who had access to the government facility.
Those who had such access were government ministers and officials. They realised they could make a lot of money through buying vehicles from Willowvale Motor Industries and reselling to desperate customers at grossly inflated prices, often beyond the government-controlled prices. A whistle-blower soon raised alarm and the scandal was exposed, with devastating consequences for many of those involved.
The exposure of this scandal, which became widely known as the Willowgate Scandal, created household names and instant heroes, chief of whom were, Geoff Nyarota, the editor of The Chronicle, the paper which broke the story and Justice Sandura, who chaired the Commission of Enquiry which investigated the corruption.
Justice Sandura was impressive. His reputation as a fearless, independent and highly professional judge was firmly established. So famous was he and his firm and independent approach that even the crowd in the football terraces, in its supreme wisdom, named one of the finest defensive footballers of the time, Francis Shonhayi, after him. He became known as “Sandura” by his adoring fans. It was a measure of how the judge, by his work, had made a positive and recognised impact on society.
His reputation and credibility were sealed when the Sandura Commission claimed the careers of a number of Cabinet Ministers, powerful figures who, just a few months before, might have seemed untouchable.
Frederick Shava was jailed for perjury, after he lied to the Sandura Commission. But he was freed after just one night in prison courtesy of a pardon issued by President Mugabe. He was recently ambassador to China before he was posted to the United Nations in New York, where he is the country’s Permanent Representative. Another Minister, Dzingai Mutumbuka resigned but later enjoyed a long and successful career at an international institution. Enos Nkala, a powerful Minister at the time, resigned and his political career never recovered. Sadly, Maurice Nyagumbo, another senior Minister at the time, took his own life after the exposure.
Reports indicate that those who appeared before the commission were rude, arrogant, aggressive and contemptuous towards the commissioners. However, demonstrating what was to be the defining characteristics of his long judicial career, Sandura was firm, fair, courageous and fiercely independent.
Ironically, it was this firmness and independence of mind as well as his abiding faith in professionalism that would work against him later in his career.
Most in the legal profession would agree that Justice Sandura should have been head of the judiciary at least before his retirement. He was a fine judge who commanded respect across the board.
He had started as a judge many years before in 1983. In 1984, he was fast-tracked to become the Judge President and head of the High Court, as the newly independent nation sought to redefine its institutions. Under the Lancaster House Agreement and in the spirit of reconciliation, the judiciary had been left largely untouched, while changes in personnel were taking place in the political institutions – the legislature and the executive. But even then, the white voters’ roll and the specially reserved seats in the legislature was an indication of the deal to retain space for the minority white population.
The judiciary had, however, remained largely intact. It would have taken years for black judges to rise through the ranks, given that they had been excluded in the colonial era. The government was keen to promote the gradual transformation of the judiciary. To this end, there were deliberate measures to fast-track black judges and Justice Sandura and Justice Dumbutshena were beneficiaries of those policies. Justice Dumbutshena became the Chief Justice, ahead of more senior white judges and Justice Sandura was also elevated to the position of Judge President, in similar fashion.
Although they were beneficiaries of deliberate affirmative measures, both went on to impress in their senior positions and carve out distinguished careers. The Dumbutshena Supreme Court is still remembered for its progressive decisions in the field of fundamental rights and freedoms. It was during his tenure as the Judge President that Justice Sandura gained his fame when he chaired the Sandura Commission.
Later, following time-honoured judicial tradition, he was elevated to the Supreme Court, in 1998. His replacement as Judge President was Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, the current Chief Justice. Later, after 2000, the judiciary went through a tumultuous period, reflecting the political upheaval that was then taking place. The judiciary came under severe attack from the executive branch.
On one occasion, war veterans, led by Joseph Chinotimba, now an MP, forced their way into the Supreme Court, and while in there sang and danced on desks and benches, threatening the judges with physical harm. The object was to push out the judges whom they accused of standing in the way of the Fast Track Land Reform Process.
After this, the then Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, advised Chief Justice Gubbay that the government could no longer guarantee his safety. This forced the Chief Justice into premature retirement. Many others, including High Court judges, left the bench in frustration. But even in the face of this onslaught, Justice Sandura remained steadfast.
The expectation among many was that as the most senior black judge, he would fill the robes of the retiring Chief Justice. But he was passed over. The honour went instead to his subordinate, Justice Chidyausiku, who became the country’s Chief Justice, ahead of him. One might have thought Justice Sandura would leave in frustration at being passed over. But he was a professional man and he soldiered on, regardless. He served faithfully until the end, when he retired, at the age of 70, as the Constitution commands, in 2011.
He had served on the bench for nearly three decades. They were three decades of distinguished service. In his later years, he became more famous for his dissenting opinions, demonstrating the endurance of his independent streak and principled stance. I have said before, that when time allows, it will be necessary to compile Justice Sandura’s book of dissenting opinions. Its title would probably be, The Dissenting Judge, a collection of his famous dissenting but persuasive judicial opinions.
He was not afraid to differ from his learned brothers and sisters on the bench, even in the most sensitive political cases. Writing some years ago, I said of the man’s legacy, “I like to think Justice Sandura’s judgments are and will in future be a critical source of teaching and learning the law in Zimbabwe. History is kind to good legal reasoning”. This remains true today, as it was then.
At his retirement, Tinoziva Bere, the then President of the Law Society praised Justice Sandura saying, “He is principled and courageous and he can be proud of the service he rendered to the cause of justice and the rule of law in this country”. He described him as the candle that brought light in a room of darkness. Another senior lawyer, Jonathan Samkange described his judgments as “good, sound and well-reasoned even when they were dissenting judgments”.
It is fair to say Justice Sandura commanded a great amount of respect. There will be many tribues following his untimely demise. But his independent streak meant some were never quite comfortable with him. When the Inclusive Government was searching for a new Chair for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, after the resignation of the then Chair, Justice Mtambanengwe, Justice Sandura’s name was top of the list. He had retired, was highly respected and was known for his independence and professionalism. He was the ideal candidate. But it is these qualities that seemed to have worked against him. In the end, the parties had to settle for a compromise.
But still, there was no guarantee that Justice Sandura would have agreed to take the ZEC post. He had the professionalism to refuse offers that were not consistent with his principles and beliefs. If he felt an offer would place him in situation of conflict, he would have refused it. There is a story that a large multinational once approached him with an offer of a non-executive directorship. It would have been lucrative in retirement, but he politely declined.
There can be no doubt that Justice Sandura has left a great legacy in the judicial arena, the legal profession and the nation at large. As Samkange said upon his retirement a few years ago, in the legal field, he is indeed a national hero. In 2009, he was awarded the Walter Kamba Rule of Law Award, the only serving judge to have received that prize from the Law Society of Zimbabwe. It was given in recognition of his service and commitment to the rule of law.
We notoriously do little to honour our great luminaries in various fields of endeavour. Politicians who toe the ruling party line can at least have the post-humous honour of being declared national heroes and having their remains interred at the Heroes Acre. But we do not do enough to honour the memory of other great men and women of this nation.
In this regard, Justice Sandura joins a long list of the nation’s accomplished men and women – the likes of entertainers like Safirio ‘Mukadota’ Madzikatire, Leonard Dembo, Chioniso Maraire and many more, world-famous Shona sculpture artists like Nicholas Mukomberanwa, John Takawira, etc, philanthropists like Matthew Rusike, Jairos Jiri, etc, intellectuals like Walter Kamba, Masipula Sithole, John Makumbe, etc, sportspersons like Adam Ndlovu, Banji Nkonjera and many more.
It is indeed ironic that some of the men that were found guilty of corruption by the Sandura Commission, like Nkala and Nyagumbo are interred at the Heroes Acre, having been declared national heroes, and yet the man who bravely conducted that investigation, Justice Sandura, is unlikely to get that honour, his distinguished service to the nation notwithstanding.
I hope those of us in the legal profession will honour the memory of Justice Sandura, this great man of the law, in a manner that best befits his stature and the immense contribution he made during his life time. There are many ways in which we can honour our luminaries in the profession and we should explore them.
My condolences go to Justice Sandura’s family. He was a great man and he lit an enduring light of hope, freedom and courage in the hearts and minds of many lawyers. He may no longer be among us but he remains a legal giant who towers above them all. His legacy will forever be inspirational.
Justice Wilson Sandura died on March 11th 2015 after sustaining serious injuries in a car accident on 28th February 2015. He was 74.