Former Zimbabwean High Court Justice Fergus Blackie died on 24 April 2021 at his home in Johannesburg. He is survived by his wife, two brothers, five children and six grandchildren. Anthony Egan SJ writes the following tribute to a man whose faith informed his moral choices, even when these cost him his freedom.
Fergus Craig Blackie was born on 18 July 1937 in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). The son of Scottish Catholic immigrants who came – as many did – to Africa not just to create a new life for themselves but, in the case of William his father, to study and practice Tropical Medicine.
Fergus began his schooling at St George’s College, the distinguished Jesuit school, before moving to Britain to complete high school at the Benedictine Downside Abbey. Evidently the Benedictines impressed him enough to enter their novitiate after school. His discerned however that monasticism was not his way of serving God. He left the Order before taking vows and proceeded to read Law at University College, Oxford.
Distinguished judge in Zimbabwe
He returned to Salisbury where he completed his articles as an attorney in 1963. Three years later he completed the pupillage necessary to become an advocate. He also married Adrienne Mary Appleby in January 1966. They had five children – Alexandra, Victoria, William, Caroline and Margaret.
He was appointed a Senior Counsel [a term denoting that he was now one of the top advocates in the country], in 1980, the same year that Zimbabwe became independent. His career in the High Court had taken a different turn in 1978, when he was invited to serve as an acting judge in the Administrative Court, focusing on settling disputes over water. Here he had to apply a law who vested ownership of water in the President (as opposed to private ownership of water by landholders). In settling disputes, he developed an interest and skill at mediation and arbitration. In his spare time, he also started to develop ideas to improve the country’s water management system.
His legal abilities, his experience as an advocate and mediator and his firm belief in the rule of law, made him an obvious candidate to be a judge.
Blackie was appointed a judge of the Zimbabwe High Court in 1986, a post he held until retirement in 2002. Here too he proved a strict adherent of the rule of law, firmly upholding the independence of the judiciary. This independence, at a time when the Government of Zimbabwe was becoming more and more corrupt and authoritarian, would lead to his arrest.
According to an Amnesty International Report, the process leading to this started in July 2002 when he convicted Minister of Justice, Legal & Parliamentary Affairs Patrick Chinamasa of contempt of court and sentenced him, in absentia, to three months in prison and a US$930 fine. The Minister had been summonsed for an attack on one of Blackie’s court rulings. A Supreme Court judge later overturned Blackie’s conviction of Chinamasa.
A few months later Blackie was arrested on corruption charges and obstructing justice, based on his overturning of a criminal conviction in May that year. It was alleged that he’d done this without consulting a fellow judge on the case. He was detained without trial from 13-16 September outside Harare, before being released on bail. Charges were dropped the following June.
Work as a conflict mediator in South Africa
Fergus Blackie moved with his wife Adrienne to South Africa. Settling in Johannesburg, he started a new career in mediation and arbitration, drawing on what he’d learnt with the ‘water court’ in the late 1970s. In this regard he helped to set up DiSAC, the Dispute Settlements Advisory Council, and worked with Conflict Dynamics.
He served as both mediator/arbitrator and put his experience to good use in helping train a new generation in the field. He continued working in this field until shortly before his death. After his death a number of colleagues expressed deep sadness at his loss. His long-time colleague in DiSAC, Advocate Hendrik Kotze, stated:
“I am sad to hear this news. I had many occasions to interact with Fergus in the process of establishing and developing DiSAC. These meetings were always a pleasure – he was always the perfect gentleman, so knowledgeable and sensible about the issues we were dealing with, and supportive of the work being done.”
Similarly, Felicity Steadman of Conflict Dynamics said:
“Conflict Dynamics has had an association with Fergus Backie going back to his early days in SA. He has been on our panel of mediators since it was established. He was a courageous man and, in my experience, kind, humble, and self-effacing. We will miss him.”
A family man with deep faith
Behind this public persona, Fergus Blackie was a committed family man, warm-hearted and filled with a sense of humour. Committed to his faith, he took a considerable interest in Church affairs. Above all he believed in fairness and had little time for posturing or posing behind technical jargon.
Why should we talk of him? We live in times where so much of what he opposed seems to be the norm. In many countries, not least here in southern Africa, there is a growing contempt for the rule of law, for judicial process – often couched in the language of populism, a language that poses as ‘plain speaking’ but hides ulterior, often sinister self-interested motives. It doesn’t take rocket science – or more accurately familiarity with the law – to see in the Chinamasa Affair a foreshadowing of the legal wrangles and political posturing we are experiencing in contemporary South Africa.
In this, at very least, Fergus Blackie’s life should be an encouragement to South African judges, and all citizens who value the rule of law, to stand for that all too rare thing today, public integrity.