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Death of Judge Ramon Leon leads to media storm

  • TaliJudgeLeon
The death of Judge Ramon Leon, father of former DA leader Tony Leon, has led to a storm of misinformation about his legacy – after it was incorrectly claimed that he played a role in the hanging of a well-known and loved anti-apartheid activist.
by TALI FEINBERG | Apr 19, 2018

Judge Leon, who served on the Natal Bench for over 20 years during the apartheid era, passed away on the weekend. He is known for sentencing 19-year-old Andrew Zondo to death after Zondo’s involvement in the 1985 Amanzimtoti shopping centre blast that killed five people, including two children.

Early media reports after his death incorrectly linked Judge Leon to the sentencing to death of apartheid activist Solomon Mahlangu, leading to a storm of exchanges in the media. It appeared that Judge Leon had been confused with Judge Johan Theron, who was known as “the hanging judge”, sentencing Mahlangu to death and turning down his appeal.

Indeed, two years after Zondo’s sentencing, Judge Leon became a supporter of the Society for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, and on his retirement, he said: “I don’t like capital punishment. I have had to impose the death sentence on a fair number of occasions. It always causes me acute distress.”

Tony Leon makes mention of the Zondo case in his book Opposite Mandela: Encounters with South Africa’s Icon, published in 2014. Discussing the case with with then president Nelson Mandela in 1996, he writes:

“Mandela read the judgment very carefully and in silence. After he had finished reading, I suggested that while I hardly expected him to agree with it, the judgment and my father’s entire judicial record hardly portrayed him as an ‘apartheid hanging judge’, as some had recently suggested.

“‘There is no need to belabour the point’, Mandela said. ‘Once you start attacking the integrity of individuals, there is indeed no end to the matter. Anyway, the government’s view of Judge Leon is quite different from that of one or two individuals.’

“He reminded me that, only a year or so before, the government had chosen my father to chair a high-level commission of inquiry into the Vaal Reefs Mining disaster and that its wide-ranging report was a ‘model’ on which the state intended to base legislation for an overhaul of mining health and safety matters (it did so the following year).

“And, indeed, Mandela and my father sat happily next to each other at my 40th birthday a few months later,” Leon writes.

Following news of the death of Judge Leon this week, a family friend recalled the moment Mandela got up to leave Leon’s birthday party in Houghton: “As he stood up, your father rose – out of perfect manners and respect – at which point, the President said: ‘Please sit, Judge’ … It was a moving and touching moment.”

But for many this week, it was too late to correct the misinformation circulated in online media, and Judge Leon was roundly condemned on Twitter for supposedly playing a role in Mahlangu’s hanging.

Michael Bagraim, who has been practising law for over 35 years, says he was incensed at the untruths perpetuated in the media following Judge Leon’s passing: “This is an unbelievable attack. Judge Leon has always been fair and just, dedicating his life to the justice of the country. But the damage is done.”

Indeed, one Twitter user with 4 812 followers stated: “On the day it is revealed that it was Tony Leon who ordered the reopening of the Stompie case, his father Ramon Leon, who practically sent #SolomonMahlangu to the gallows, dies. Signal is full now, mama! I’m receiving it.”

Her comments come in the context of former minister of safety and security Sydney Mufamadi saying at a press briefing on Monday that Tony Leon went to see then police commissioner George Fivaz and had the investigation into Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s involvement in the murder of Stompie Seipei reopened. Madikizela-Mandela passed away on April 2.

“Any suggestion of an involvement with Stratcom before 1994 when he was the opposition justice spokesperson, or afterwards, when he was the leader of the opposition to the ANC government, is a ridiculous lie. Tony Leon was doing his job and any allegation that he was ‘behind’ the persecution of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is also a lie,” said Douglas Gibson, the DA’s former chief whip.

Reporting on the media’s misrepresentations of Judge Leon and their subsequent apology, Politicsweb wrote on Tuesday: “The claim that Judge Leon had a hand in the death of Solomon Mahlangu appears to originate from the pro-Zupta ‘Black First Land First’ movement, which described Tony Leon's father last year as an ‘an apartheid hanging judge who helped hang young revolutionaries like Andrew Zondo and Solomon Mahlangu’.”

In a Facebook post on his father’s 90th birthday three years ago, Tony Leon said he was “a moral compass, with an extraordinary impact on our lives and the courses [our lives] have taken under his steady influence and through his profound example”. He added that the late legal luminary, Jules Browde, was his father’s oldest friend.

His widow, Professor Selma Browde, recalls Judge Leon as “a very fine man – we were very fond of him. He was very charming and loved to sing! He had a great sense of humour and a certain naivety... he didn’t see the bad in people”.

On Facebook, Michal Leon wrote: “My much loved and admired father-in-law, Ramon Leon, passed away yesterday. He had a long and very distinguished life, and has left his mark.”

According to Politicsweb, Leon senior “matriculated at Durban High School and obtained his BA and LLB degrees from the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He was appointed QC at the age of 33, before becoming a judge of the Natal Division of the Supreme Court in 1967. He became Chancellor of the University of Natal in March 1984. Following his early retirement in 1987, for health reasons, he was widely praised in legal circles. The Natal bench had, by that time, distinguished itself by the liberal character of many of its rulings.”

Leon went on become an Appeal Court Judge in Lesotho and Swaziland, and then spent nearly a decade as chancellor of the University of Natal.

A memorial service was held for Leon in Durban on Thursday.

1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 19 Apr
    Whatever the view or truth of the matter, the death sentence was appropriate at the time, as it should be today, for terrorism and murder

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