Life and Law

John Simon receives a Lifetime Achievement Award

Lawyer John Simon was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Law Society at the end of 2010; and celebrated his 80th birthday in January.

With no plans to retire, John shares his thoughts on South Africa, the community, and secrets to success. “It’s great to have whatever work I’ve done recognised by my peers,” says John. However, he notes that the
way to a fulfilling career is to “never stop learning — and learn things that aren’t in the law books!” John has been practising law in Cape Town since 1953, particularly in commercial and corporate law, intellectual property and estate planning. He has also lectured at UCT and held a number of leadership positions in the field.

At the same time, John has always been extremely involved in the Cape Town Jewish community, and has been Chairman of the SAJBD, the IUA and the Jacob Gitlin Library.

He has since devoted himself to academic Jewish Studies, obtaining an M.A. in Jewish Civilization from UCT. He is currently a member of the Kaplan Centre Management Committee and on the Editorial Board of “Jewish Affairs”.

“One can measure the value of this centre by trying to picture what it would be like if we didn’t have it — the amount of scholarship and publications we would have lost,” says John of the Kaplan Centre. “It really is a very important academic resource, and has made the South African Jewish community stand high in the field of Jewish Studies.”

Looking back at how both the community and South Africa have changed, John strongly believes that “ma lo ya-aseh seichel, ya’aseh zman — what common sense doesn’t do, time does.” However, on changes in South African law, he explains that we haven’t quite completely moved to a system when legal practice and the administration of justice are going smoothly. “There is a tendency in South Africa that when something is perceived to be in need of correction, the pendulum goes too far the other way. A good example is labour law.

Before it was wrong as there was no such thing as retrenchment. We set about correcting it but it went too far, so as to seriously handicap productivity. The same has happened with divorce and company law… but it
will come right.”

South Africa and success On the state of the country, John notes that “there is a saying that historians have, that ‘revolution always devours its own children’.” We are seeing this today, when a new generation wants to forget about the past and grab the offerings of the present. John fears the bloodshed that was avoided in 1990 may still be coming, “but it won’t be black on white, but rather the haves and the have-nots… we’ve already seen it in Hout Bay and Khayelitsha. If you’ve got nothing and you see these fat cats who have made millions upon millions, how long can you expect the cauldron not to explode?”

However, despite all this, he remains optimistic about South Africa. “The whole legal system has changed, and we have a Constitution and a Constitutional Court. I think there are enough people in the ANC — Mr Malema excluded — who are well-educated and responsible.”

In terms of challenges facing the Jewish community, John thinks that “we need to keep our heads on the Middle East issue. All of us are having agonising moments, but we need to remain loyal to our basic heritage.”

He also feels that it is vital to limit confrontation between different sectors of the community: “It is wrong to find rabbis who will sit on a platform with an imam, but not with a reform rabbi. Cape Town has always led in the more tolerant approach.”

Reviewing a fruitful career from the age of 80, John offers his perspective on successful living: “If you look forward to getting to work in the morning, and if you look forward to getting home in the evening — that’s success!”

John has been married to Shirley for 55 years, and quips that the secret to a successful marriage is to choose the right wife!” They have three sons, who are all living in South Africa, and five grandchildren. “We are very blessed,” he says.


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