Zak Yacoob
Retired Judge of the Constitutional Court Zak Yacoob

Concourt Judge: ‘I was racist & sexist too’

Retired judge of the Constitutional Court, Zak Yacoob, admitted that he also held racist and sexist views of the world when he was a young man, but changed when he came to university as his horizons were broadened.

Zak Yacoob
Retired Judge of the Constitutional Court Zak Yacoob

His frank admission was made during a panel discussion at the fifth annual Conversations for Change, hosted by the Mandela Rhodes Community and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Suntosh Pillay, lead organizer, says that we need more dialogue spaces. “The brazen presence of plain old fashioned racism in our public discourse – from Penny Sparrow to Mabel Jansen – reminds us that removing the mental shackles of apartheid is a long and arduous journey ravaged by denial,” said Pillay.

Suntosh Pillay
Justice Zak Yacoob, Unathi Beku, Prof Cheryl Potgieter, Nompumelelo Runji, and Suntosh Pillay at the Mandela Rhodes Community’s fifth annual Conversations for Change at UKZN

The theme of “I’m not racist, but…” foregrounded how denial keeps racism alive in South Africa.

The panel included Yacoob, who is also the Ombud of UKZN; Deputy Vice Chancellor and Head of Humanities at UKZN, Professor Cheryl Potgieter; Sowetan columnist Nompumelelo Runji; and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Unathi Beku.

Beku recalled a story of going to her white friend’s house while still a student in Port Elizabeth, and being mistaken for being a maid.

“We talk about privilege, and yes, I desire a certain type of privilege where I will not be assumed to be the help just because I am black,” said Beku. “I desire to be recognized as a human being when I walk into a room.”

In response to calls for violence against white people by an undergraduate student in the audience, Yacoob challenged activists to be revolutionaries with a clearer philosophy of change, one that does not result in the futility of both black and white people killing each other.

Pillay told the packed venue that “we need to actively create spaces where awkward but constructive conversations can happen because such conversations help create a new world order, and that this event is just one brick in building this new world”.

The Mandela Rhodes Community are recipients of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and host events that espouse the principles of ethical leadership, educational excellence, social entrepreneurship, and reconciliation.


The Community envisions itself as a socially relevant and reliable source of intellectual and passionate leadership, and hopes that this event brings together educational and business institutions, communities, high scholars, academics and the general public.

Suntosh Pillay, Chairperson of the Board of Directors and a Durban-based psychologist, says that “the Community is incredibly diverse in nationalities, cultures, political affiliations, educational histories, and ideologies. These differences are our biggest asset and exemplify a pan-African unity in diversity. We have been most successful when we function as a platform for debates, most notably at our annual conference which is a key networking space and idea incubator, having had notable speakers such as Grace Machel and Zackhie Achmat; and via online media. Our aim is to position the Community as a space for non-partisan intellectual and progressive debate. But beyond words and ideas, we hope to inspire ourselves and others towards enacting change”.

About Naufal Khan

Naufal Khan was the Publisher at ADISHAKTI MEDIA and the editor-in-chief of the South African Indian news service Indian Spice. Khan was former Sunday Times journalist and also an occult fiction and non-fiction writer with several published titles.

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