Monday, 31 October 2011 09:28

Master of the art of the impossible

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By Shafique Cockar

If there is one individual who has shaped Kenya's industrial relations it is Justice Saeed Rahman Cockar, founding judge of the Kenya Industrial Court who has been labelled the most famous judge in Africa and 'The Workers' Saviour'. An expert at maintaining industrial peace and a master of the art of the impossible, Justice Cockar impeccably ran the Industrial Court, single-handed, from its inauguration for over 30 years, and wisely balanced the scales of justice. He was highly revered and was one of the most distinguished gentlemen in Kenyan judicial circles. He was renowned for his honesty, wisdom and sincerity and was held in high esteem by both management and the unions. He helped to set up Industrial Courts in other African countries and was invited to various countries worldwide to give lectures on industrial relations. Once, on a visit to Kenya and on meeting with Justice Cockar, Princess Anne said, 'We could do with you in the UK at the moment'. This was in reference to the on-going postal strike in the UK at the time. In a speech read on his behalf - at a special tribute paid to Justice Cockar in the wake of his demise - the Chief Justice said the late judge's contribution to labour laws was phenomenal. Justice Cockar also wrote the book The Kenya Industrial Court: Origin, Development and Practice (1981), which is widely used as a guide and teaching tool in various establishments.

So where did it all start for Justice Saeed Cockar, and how did this modest, sincere and honest man's life come to be one of such great influence and tremendous importance to Kenya and its people.


Justice Saeed Rahman Cockar was born on 25 October, 1926, in Amritsar, India, where his parents were holidaying. A third generation Kenyan of South Asian extraction, Cockar's family came to Kenya at the turn of the century. His grandfather, Abdul Wahid, was an Afghan who made his way into north-west India and was lured to Kenya as a recruit for the ‘Lunatic Express’. He worked initially as a guard with the Uganda Railways, but then left the Railways and set up his own business supplying fuel to his former employers. A colourful character, he became one of the wealthiest men in the country at the time and was well-known for the wild animals he kept in cages in his home in the old Chambers Road in Ngara, Nairobi. He died in 1939 and Saeed Cockar's father, Abdul Rahman, took over the business. He in turn became a distinguished member of the Nairobi City Council and also the Legislative Assembly. He died at the young age of 52.

Saeed Cockar attended the Government Indian Primary School (now City Primary School) and did his secondary education at Government Secondary School (now Jamhuri High School). Cockar then qualified as a Barrister-at-Law from Lincoln's Inn, London in 1946 and started practising as an advocate in Kenya the same year.


His first appearance was at the Court of Appeal in 1947, where he successfully argued a criminal case. The then Chief Justice, Barclay-Nihil, was so impressed with the earnest young man before him that he paid him a special compliment and congratulated him on his excellent presentation. Cockar never looked back. His hallmark was the thoroughness with which he would research and conduct his cases. At the same time Cockar was also very active in politics and was the General Secretary of the Kenya Muslim League.

From 1947 Cockar successfully practised law for the next 17 years as an advocate of the High Court. In 1953 he was joined by his brother, Retired Chief Justice Abdul Majid Cockar, and they continued in the firm Cockar & Cockar Advocates. Among the highlights during this period Saeed Cockar represented freedom fighters in 1954, including the Mau Mau leader Waruhiu Itote, better known as 'General China', and it was this counsel that made Cockar a household name. 'We were doing our best todefend freedom fighters when they faced capital punishment', said Cockar. Cockar was also one of the ten advocates selected to defend freedom fighters after the Lari Massacre, for whom he successfully managed to get acquittal.

Meanwhile, it had also not escaped public attention that Justice Cockar was particularly interested and adept at matters relating to labour and industrial disputes. When the question of setting up an industrial court was first mooted in Parliament; Cockar happened to have been requested to write a paper on industrial relations for a workers and employers seminar. The paper was immensely successful. Events were rolling fast into each other for soon the Trade Disputes Act was passed and the Industrial Court was set up in July 1964. The Government had to have a person to head the court who could be trusted by all parties and upon the insistence of Clement Lubembe, a prominent labour organiser, Cockar was duly appointed. He was given the title of Court's President, which was later amended in law to confer on him the status of a High Court Judge. The first case of the newly-established Industrial Court was heard in August 1964 and was a dispute between the Kenya Petroleum Oil Workers Union and the East African Oil Refineries.

The Kenya Industrial Court very quickly started to gain an enviable reputation not only in Kenya but in most parts of the Third World. Through the wisdom, guidance and dynamic leadership of Justice Saeed Cockar, the Court earned the accolade as one of the best in the continent and became one of the most highly respected courts in

all of Africa. The smooth system of the Industrial Court made most Kenyan employers understand that they must deal with their employees fairly. Due to the respect gained over the years for Justice Cockar, employers rarely failed to abide by the rulings of the Court. As Justice Cockar arbitrated the industrial disputes, one of his guiding principles was that there always is a solution to every problem.

Over the years Justice Cockar became synonymous with the industrial relations in the country; in a career that grew parallel with the industrial development of Kenya. Justice Cockar, who was a broad-minded and deep-thinking Muslim, once said, 'In my work I am influenced by the Prophet Mohammed's wisdom. He taught that a worker should be paid his dues before his sweat has dried from his brow. There should be no exploitation, the workers should get their just rewards and the employers must be protected. Justice Cockar also said, 'The Court's arbitration in disputes reflects the conscience of a community - to give workers the basic human rights and decent standards of living and to look into the economic interests of the country fairly'. Justice Cockar made no secret about being a friend of the poor. Nothing attests more to this man than his work at the Court which was so intricately related to the welfare of the worker. Many of his historical judgements are pointers as to Justice Cockar's stand. But, ultimately, his business called for impartiality, a principle he always lived up to. In 2001 Justice Cockar was appointed Chairman of The Task Force to Review Labour Laws in Kenya, which he successfully completed, presenting his report to the Government.

Thereafter, up until the time of his death, he continued to assist the Government in implementing the new recommendations.


At the same time whilst Justice Saeed Cockar was making a name for himself in his professional career this remarkable man was also causing a stir in the sporting world. Justice Cockar was a class athlete. He represented Kenya in international hockey matches (also became the president of the Kenya Hockey Union), was anaccomplished cricketer but, above all, he was widely regarded as the greatest and most influential South Asian tennis player Kenya has ever seen.

At a time when Kenya tennis was dominated by the British colonialists, Cockar was the man who brought the Asians back into the tennis scene in Kenya. Cockar started getting noticed in the tennis circles during the regional tournaments and the Asian v European tennis competitions, and in the very first of these fixtures in 1950 hewas the only Asian to win his match. At the age of 24 Cockar stunned the tennis world - he became the first local Asian to defeat a Kenya Open Tennis Champion when he beat F J Piercy, the 1949 champion and former Davis Cup player, at the Rift Valley Open Championships. Of course, as history now tells us, this was all just aprelude to Justice Cockar's destiny. He went on to win the Kenya Open Tennis Championships four times - 1954, 1955, 1959 and 1962. He also won numerous regional tournaments, including winning both, the Rift Valley Open and the Nyanza Open Championships, each three years running; an all-time record. He was also the Uganda and East African Champion and also won Kenya a silver medal at the 1965 All-Africa Games held in Congo Brazzaville.

Cockar, more than anybody else, pushed the standard of Kenya tennis to the high position of those days. His determination, court-craft, manner of sudden attack and patient dismantling of his opponents piece by piece was intelligent and scientific.

Justice Saeed Cockar was nominated for Kenya Sportsman of the Year 1961/62 - high recognition indeed, for his outstanding sporting achievements.

Yes,the indispensable do pass on but they leave behind their legacy. Justice Saeed Cockar was a paradigm of unswerving honesty, justice, and care for the vulnerable. He was a son of Kenya who will be remembered in the hearts of Kenyans as one of the beloved fathers of the country who worked endlessly to improve the plight of theworkers. May many walk well in his wake. We salute a true legend who is embedded in the history of Kenya.

Justice Saeed Cockar passed away on 10 October 2008 and is buried at Kariokor Muslim Cemetery, Nairobi.

He is survived by his wife, four children and five grandchildren. Sagira Cockar, better known as Rani, now lives with the author in the UK.

Shafique is the Head of Product and Marketing for a major world-wide tour operator; his eldest sister, Fawzia, is a criminal lawyer in Canada, the youngest sister Farhana is an academic in the UK. Brother Tawfik is a Prison Officer in Her Majesty's Prisons in the UK. Shafique and Tawfik inherited their father's sporting talent. Shafique was Kenya's Number One tennis player in 1976-7 and both brothers made history when they became Number One - the first sons of a former Number One! In 1973 in the Parklands Junior Championships, Tawfik created history at the age of eleven when he became the first (and possibly only ever) boy to win three single titles in the same tournament: the under 12, the under 15 and the under 18.

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  • Comment Link charles. Monday, 18 June 2012 05:55 posted by charles.

    am impressed by the life of saeed. am a judicial officer and hope to follow in his footsteps.

  • Comment Link Samir Abattouy Friday, 25 November 2011 12:39 posted by Samir Abattouy

    This is an excellent article. Justice Cockar was an outstanding indvidual .

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