Ismail Mahomed

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Advocate, first Black judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa

First name: 
Ismail
Last name: 
Mahomed
Date of birth: 
25 July 1931
Location of birth: 
Pretoria, South Africa
Date of death: 
17 June 2000
Location of death: 
Johannesburg, South Africa

Ismail Mahomed was born in Prinsloo Street Pretoria on 25 July 1931, a second generation South African of Indian descent and first born child of devoutly staunch Muslim parents. He had five siblings. After matriculating at the Pretoria Indian Boys’ High School at the end of 1950, he was accepted to do a BA at the University of Witwatersrand. On attaining his BA with Distinction in 1953, he completed a BA (Hon) in Political Studies, also with Distinction and an LLB in 1957. As an academic scholar Mahomed engaged with student affairs, becoming a notable and active member of the Students’ Representative Council and the Transvaal Indian Congress.[i]

In order to practise as an advocate he was forced to move from his hometown of Pretoria, where racist barriers at the Bar would have precluded his entry, to Johannesburg where the Bar was racially inclusive. Notwithstanding his admittance to the Bar in Johannesburg, he continued to have to deal with racism. Mahomed was denied access to the court’s robing room and dining facilities.[ii]

Refusing to be hindered by what he would later describe as being an Apartheid imposed ‘badge of inferiority’[iii] Mahomed forged ahead to become South Africa’s first black Senior Counsel, using his intellect and education to assist people who were criminalised by Apartheid.[iv] The 1960 publication Group Areas and Their Development: including land tenure and occupation, which Ismail co-authored with Lewis Dison, was an outcome of his experience in representing the Black and Indian traders struggle against the 1950’s Group Areas Act. He became the leading authority on the subject.[v] In 1974 the Mahomed family were themselves forcibly removed from their home and relocated to Laudium, a new area designated for Indian people.[vi]

Mahomed also appeared as the advocate for many political activists and practised at the South African Bar for 35 years. In 2000 Jeremy Gauntlett SC lauded Mahomed’s contribution as an advocate, saying:

As an advocate, Ismail Mahomed appeared in a large number of South Africa's most important trials, applications and appeals: innumerable group areas battles, the dispossession of the rural poor (involving challenges to homeland gerrymandering), challenges to legislative and executive action under the successive states of emergencies, and much else besides.[vii]

In April 2016 law researcher Sechaba Mohapi wrote of Mahomed’s extensive contribution to law in South Africa, saying ‘law reports show that from 1975 to 1991 Ismail Mahomed did more than anyone else to shape administrative law in South Africa’.[viii] However, because racial exclusion Mahomed was not able to become a judge in South Africa and in 1979 he took up the appointment of judge in the Court of Appeal in Swaziland and in 1982 he accepted a similar appointment in Lesotho. With the independence of Namibia in 1990, Mahomed became Namibia’s second chief justice, which was followed by his appointment as president of the Court of Appeal of Lesotho.[ix]

In 1991, following the unbanning of the liberation organization, Mahomed was appointed permanent judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa, a position from which he would have been racially excluded in the past.[x] By 1995 he was appointed to the Constitutional Court and a year later he was appointed Chief of Justice by Nelson Mandela, a role he fulfilled until his death to pancreatic cancer in 2000.[xi] He is survived by his wife Mrs Hawa Ismail.

Foot Notes

[i] Ellison Kahn ‘Appointment of Justice Ismail Mahomed as Chief Justice’ (1997) 114 SALJ at 198).

[ii] Sechaba Mohapi, Justice Ismail Mahomed: First black Chief Justice of South Africa, iconic and distinguished jurist, 25 April 2016,

Url number https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/justice-ismail-mahomed-first-black-chief-south-africa-sechaba-mohapi (Date accessed 21.06.2016).

[iii] Jeremy Gauntlett SC, ‘We Remember ... The late Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed 25 July 1931 - 17 June 2000’ in Advocate Second term 2000, p.5. Url number http://www.sabar.co.za/law-journals/2000/secondterm/2000-secondterm-vol013-no2-pp05-06.pdf (date accessed 21.06.2016).

[iv] Profile of Justice Ismail Mahomed, Constitutional Court of South Africa Url number http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/text/judges/former/justiceismailmahomed/1.html(Date accessed 21.06.2016).

[v] IOL News, Chief Justice Mahomed dies 17 June 2000. Url number http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/chief-justice-ismail-mahomed-dies-40588 (Date accessed 21.06.2016).

[vi] I am grateful to Justice Mahomed’s sister-in-law for supplying me with the date that Justice Mahomed’s family were forcibly removed.

[vii] Jeremy Gauntlett SC, ‘We Remember ... The late Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed 25 July 1931 - 17 June 2000’ in Advocate Second term 2000, p.5. Url number http://www.sabar.co.za/law-journals/2000/secondterm/2000-secondterm-vol013-no2-pp05-06.pdf (date accessed 21.06.2016).

[viii] Sechaba Mohapi, Justice Ismail Mahomed: First black Chief Justice of South Africa, iconic and distinguished jurist, 25 April 2016,

Url number https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/justice-ismail-mahomed-first-black-chief-south-africa-sechaba-mohapi (Date accessed 21.06.2016).

[ix] Jeremy Gauntlett SC, ‘We Remember ... The late Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed 25 July 1931 - 17 June 2000’ in Advocate Second term 2000, p.5. Url number http://www.sabar.co.za/law-journals/2000/secondterm/2000-secondterm-vol013-no2-pp05-06.pdf (date accessed 21.06.2016).

[x] Profile of Justice Ismail Mahomed, Constitutional Court of South Africa Url number http://www.constitutionalcourt.org.za/text/judges/former/justiceismailmahomed/1.html (date accessed 21.06.2016).

[xi] IOL News, Chief Justice Mahomed dies 17 June 2000. Url number http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/chief-justice-ismail-mahomed-dies-40588 .

Last updated : 30-Jun-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011