South African justice returns to learn from youths

"The wisdom of an adult can come from a child."

Seventeen-year-old University City High School senior Victoria Arter furiously scribbled the heartfelt platitude into the notebook carefully poised on her lap, as South African Justice Yvonne Mokgoro addressed the room of wide-eyed, high school students

Mokgoro, South Africa's first black female jurist who sits on the nation's Constitutional Court, spent time during a recent three-day stay in Philadelphia speaking with Penn faculty and law students.

But it was the kids she couldn't wait to see.

About a dozen or so high school students enrolled in the PULSE program -- Philadelphia Urban Law Student Education -- gathered Dec. 9 in the Penn Law School library to ask Mokgoro questions about constitutional law, and to provide her with a glimpse of issues that face American youth.

Mokgoro attended Penn in 1989-90 for her masters-of-law degree before returning to South Africa to participate in political changes taking place there, never dreaming that she would become instrumental in protecting human rights through the South African Constitution, adopted in 1996.

Mokgoro visited Penn at the request of Penn Professor Barbara Woodhouse, who once taught Mokgoro in a constitutional law and children's rights class.

"[Mokgoro] told me the very best thing about her visit was the chance to meet with young people from our area's schools," said Woodhouse.

Mokgoro told the children:"The problems you experience are not different than some of the problems in South Africa. Possibly the extent to which you experience them might be different."

Her shoes comfortably kicked off beneath the conference table and her hands animated with every issue, Mokgoro conversed easily with the students, listening to their issues and comparing them to her nation's. "Stay focused and set goals for yourself," she stressed.

A question about crime rates among children prompted Mokgoro to matter-of-factly explain the ins and outs of South Africa's crime syndicates, where rent-a-youth tactics are the norm, she said. She compared the cultures of commercialism and said many South African youths are "almost obsessed with money and clothes and what they call the good life."

She explained differences in gender roles: "When a husband and wife park their BMWs and throw down their briefcases at the end of the day, it's still the norm for the husband to grab the newspaper and the wife to pick up her apron."

And, most importantly, she explained to the kids the importance of peer pressure -- positive peer pressure -- and surrounding themselves with the right people.

It all made perfect sense to high school student Arter, who had amassed a number of quotations to her liking during Mokgoro's visit. "She said a lot of things I was thinking," Arter said. "It all made a lot of sense."

Originally published on January 14, 1998