A tribute to an unreconstructed radical

RA Koen and BSC Martin

Lovell Fernandez was born in Evaton in the Vaal Triangle on 31 March 1950. He won a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for doctoral research at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg. He completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of the Witwatersrand. In the early 1990s, Fernandez joined the UWC Law Faculty, where he remained until his retirement in 2019. He died on 18 December 2020.

Unlike so many of us, Lovell Fernandez understood the purpose of life as an obligation to leave this world in a better condition than that in which he found it. It was this conviction which informed all his relationships, whether personal, professional or political and whether individual or collective. He knew that most human beings are buckling under the cosh of oppression and exploitation.  And he was steadfast in his determination to resist those who would harass and harm their fellow human beings in pursuit of exorbitant profits and petty political agendas.

This approach to the world and his fellow human beings made him a true radical, that is, one committed unconditionally to drilling down to the root of all phenomena and relations.  This worldview defined his existence, it governed his interactions and it informed his decision-making.  He never wavered, even in the face of constant pressures from all sorts and quarters to look the other way.  He had antennae for chicanery and a nose for charlatanry and would expose and oppose both relentlessly.  He remained, to the end, a dyed-in-the-wool and unrepentant radical.

One area where this may be seen is in his university teaching. There is general agreement amongst colleagues and students (including those students who became colleagues) that Lovell was an excellent teacher, a maestro who could shape his subject matter into indelible stories.  However, the ease which he did this belies the fact that, for him, teaching was always a subversive activity.  The lecture hall was where he opened the eyes of students to an alternative view of law and history.  His story-telling was both didactic and insurgent.  Lovell had mastered both Africanisation and decolonisation in his teaching of law long before they became buzzwords in the legal academy. And even when it became obvious that formal commitments to Africanisation and decolonisation would remain largely formal, Lovell never relented in his mission to subvert the hegemony which the Western pedagogy enjoyed in law.

That was Lovell the radical.  He saw early on that legal education was dominated by colonialist ideas and methods emanating from the minority world of the white global North.  Having decided that it should not be so, he set about undermining that domination systematically and persistently.  Unlike so many others, he did not need to be told to Africanise and decolonise.  Black lives always mattered to him: long before the contemporary BLM movement took shape, he was already waiting for his fellow academics to catch up with him. To be sure, he was saddened when it emerged that so many proclamations of Africanisation and decolonisation were hot air.  But he persevered, promoting them in practice and with gratifying success, even while others were floundering about how to implement them.

Importantly, for him Africanisation and decolonisation did not stop at the law curriculum.  He was keen to see them applied also to law teachers.  He himself was a product of UWC and had gone on to become a senior professor at the institution which had played a formative role in shaping his values and politics. He had an unshakeable belief in the capacity of UWC law students, born and bred in South Africa, to become law teachers at UWC and other South African universities.  This is why he would speak always of “growing our own timber”.  For him, that was the key to Africanising and decolonising the law teaching staff.

Politically, Lovell was, at minimum, a radical democrat.  He took seriously the democratic ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.  The people always mattered most to him, and he despised those professional politicians who saw in democracy all kinds of business opportunities and money-making schemes.  He was furious that the South African democratic revolution had stumbled so quickly and collapsed so completely.  He was vexed that all the promises of democratic transformation had been reduced to a ceremonial exercise of the right to vote every few years.  He hated the fraud and corruption which came so easily and openly to so many supposed tribunes of the people.  He had a comprehensive and first-hand understanding of the history of the South African liberation struggle and refused to accept that so much had been sacrificed by so many to facilitate the illicit enrichment of the new political elite.  For him, the liberation struggle was a people’s struggle and the people had to be the primary beneficiaries of victory.

An acknowledged expert in criminal law and justice, in his later years Lovell turned his attention to the law of economic crime in general and to anti-money laundering law in particular.  As is well known, he was pivotal to pioneering the study of the law of economic crime and to launching the Journal of Anti-Corruption Law in the Department of Criminal Justice and Procedure at UWC.  In these endeavours, too, he was a radical through and through.  Thus, despite its title, the Journal of Anti-Corruption Law never was meant to be a repository only for black letter legal pieces, but was intended from the start to give generous space also to contributions which ventured outside the purely legal, into the domains of sociology, philosophy, economics and the like.  Also, in his own research, Lovell was interrogating the ways in which the international law of economic crime promoted the economic and geo-political interests of the minority world at the expense of those of the majority world.  It is not too difficult to see that his dissent in this legal sphere was a direct consequence of his radical commitment to truth and justice. Listen to one of his protégés speak:

I believe his soul [is resting] in eternal peace.  He lived a peaceful life.  He made the world a better place than he found it by being a good friend, a dedicated teacher, a committed prof, a father … All these make him alive though dead. May his soul continue to rest in eternal peace. We have all the reasons to be celebrating the gift of his life [rather] than mourning his death.  He has accomplished his mission in this world.  We need to collect pieces of our broken hearts, stand up and continue with our mission.  We all need to make this world a better place than we found it, or else, our lives will be useless.  Aluta Continua!

More stories in Issue 124

Cissie Gool House, a modern-day Commune

In 1871 a revolutionary takeover of Paris created a vision of a new society and inspired socialists everywhere. Today in Cape Town so-called occupiers have turned the Cissie Gool House in Woodstock into a working commune, creating a vibrant communalism. The City is trying to evict them and shut down the house.

A tribute to an unreconstructed radical

The lecture hall was where he opened the eyes of students to an alternative view of law and history. His story-telling was both didactic and insurgent. Lovell had mastered both Africanisation and decolonisation in his teaching of law long before they became buzzwords in the legal academy.

Education through the eyes of a learner

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods, especially the poor and vulnerable. South Africa’s education system, which has been in crisis for many years, has also been negatively impacted, as a Grade 11 learner has revealed.

Covid-19 vaccines – inequality and the politics of health

Covid-19 has exposed the faultlines of egregious inequality, both between and within countries. It’s time the world woke up, assert the writers. This inequality will kill people on a global scale, as it did with HIV, until civil society forces Big Pharma to cede power. That’s the scenario we are looking at again. Hopefully, we have learnt something from the past, before too many of our people die.

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