Stories and Traveltips

ID #5156

Judge Lammie Snyman, Randpark Ridge, Randburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

Prior to purchasing my plot in John Vorster Road, Randpark Ridge, Randburg, I decided to canvass the neighbours to establish whether or not I had overlooked anything important. So I knocked on the front door of a neighbouring property, which is when I first met Judge Lammie Snyman.

He had retired from the bench when I met him. However he had held several important positions during his career, including those of Supreme Court Judge (Witwatersrand Division), Chairman of the Publications Commission (the censorship board) and so on. In addition he had been responsible for several landmark decisions. I had never met someone like him before so I listened in awe to anecdotes from his long, distinguished career. And in spite of the age difference, he took a keen interest in our discussions.

One concerned a woman who appeared before him charged with murder. The facts of the case were unambiguous and had not been challenged in court. She was married and had suffered much abuse, both physical and mental, for years. As a result, she was terrified of her husband and, on one occasion, hid a carving knife under the mattress of her bed. On the day in question, her husband arrived home and made his intentions clear – he intended beating her up once again. In a moment of terror she removed the knife from below the mattress and stabbed him to death.

In terms of South African law at the time, Judge Snyman’s decision should have been simple. She had hidden the knife beneath the mattress – in other words she had thought about the matter beforehand. She was thus guilty of premeditated murder, for which the sentence was death by hanging.

Judge Snyman was, in this instance, troubled with such an interpretation of the law. The woman was a very simple, humble person and he asked the question: “What would I have done had I been that woman?” The answer to his question was clear – he would have stabbed him to death. So he sentenced the woman to death until the rising of the court. In other words, she was technically guilty of murder but, once the court went into recess, she was released from custody and free to leave. Apparently his decision caused an uproar in the South African legal fraternity. However Judge Snyman remained unapologetic about his decision.

I had a rather unsophisticated view of censorship. Who is able to judge what material should be censored? So I was surprised to hear his views on the matter. The Judge was not a prude by any means – on the contrary, because of his years on the bench he had heard and seen it all. However he was sensitive to such concerns and would routinely invite his critics to inspect material that had been banned. He noted that, whenever they had inspected the material in question, none ever disagreed with his decisions.  

He suffered from a serious heart complaint and, on several occasions, his wife Margaret phoned in the middle of the night and asked me to take him to the Kenridge Hospital in Johannesburg. While he was small of stature he was very heavy and the two of us struggled to get him into the passenger seat of my car. Then I went careering through the streets of Johannesburg at high speed, lights flashing and hooter (horn) blaring to get emergency treatment for him as soon as possible. Thankfully we survived the journey each time.  

Occasionally one meets a person one might describe as wise. Judge Snyman was such a person and I treasure the short time we shared together.

Alan McIver

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Last update: 2014-05-14 14:01
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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