Against the Current
When Johann Kriegler qualified as a lawyer in the year 1958, political turmoil was brewing in South Africa between the nationalists and the collaborationists. As an Afrikaner himself, the path of least resistance for Kriegler would have been to join the Pretoria Bar, which was predominantly Afrikaner, conservative and nationalist at the time. However, wanting to go against the current, Kriegler joined the Johannesburg Bar which was at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Consisting of ‘an unusual collection of bright weirdos’, the Johannesburg Bar was known to openly oppose the government and even protested against a judicial appointment that was seen to be pro-government at the risk of personal livelihoods. The collaborationist and liberal views of the Johannesburg Bar resonated with Kriegler who was raised with similar beliefs as a result of the hardship his family endured during the Boer War. As Kriegler had also developed an avid interest in politics while at university, joining the Johannesburg Bar allowed him to be at the intersection of law and politics.
As one might suspect, Kriegler’s choice to join the Johannesburg Bar and turn his back on Pretoria and everything it stood for at the time, came at a great cost to him. On a professional level, he received no work from Afrikaner attorneys and on a personal level, he was ostracised by his own community. His children were also denied opportunities at school because of him. However, Kriegler took this all in his stride.
After taking silk in 1972, Kriegler took on political cases during apartheid. The bulk of his political work revolved around anti-nationalist, anti-government work which aligned with his personal beliefs. He represented local leaders and former ministers and civil servants who no longer curried the government’s favour.
At the same time, Kriegler was also a strong proponent of the cab rank rule, a rule which essentially compels a barrister with the requisite legal competence to accept any brief that comes their way regardless of their personal beliefs. In accordance with his professional belief, Kriegler represented anyone who was prepared to pay his fees including right-wing nationalists such as Eugène Terre’Blanche. While it may seem perplexing for someone to uphold two diametrically opposite beliefs at the same time, the importance Kriegler attributed to having integrity towards one’s clients and the profession explains how he walked this precarious line between his professional and personal life.