/ 3 December 2012

Former chief justice Chaskalson laid to rest

Former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson.

Flags will fly at half mast this week following the death of former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson.

Chaskalson, aged 81, was diagnosed with leukemia shortly before his death on Saturday.

His pallbearers included President Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki, Cosatu general secretary Zwelenzima Vavi, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. 

Condolences poured in for Chaskalson over the weekend, with tributes from across the legal and political spectrum.

Mogoeng has said Chaskalson's contribution to the country's jurisprudence and legal institutions cannot be over-emphasised and praised his passion for the independence of the judiciary.

The Farlam commission of inquiry into the violence at Marikana called for a moment of silence at the start of Monday’s proceedings and, as a token of respect, the inquiry was adjourned for half an hour.

Chaskalson was one of the defence lawyers in the Rivonia Trial, which saw former president Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment. He was a key figure involved in the drafting of not one but two Constitutions – South Africa's and Namibia's.

He was the first president of the country’s Constitutional Court, and later became the first chief justice. He wrote or contributed to a number of landmark decisions, including that which lead to the end of the death penalty.

On his retirement from the Constitutional Court in 2005, former president Thabo Mbeki called him a "giant among the architects of our democracy", saying he had "worked with distinction to restore the credibility of a judiciary that had been totally discredited in the eyes of the majority, during the apartheid years" and had "steered the judiciary at a time when it was grappling with defining its proper role in a democracy".

Chaskalson was also one of the founders of the Legal Resources Centre, human rights organisation dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and marginalised.

"To the last he stood with those who think it law’s duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," Jeremy Gauntlett, chairperson of the South African Bar wrote in the Business Day this week.

During his last public speaking event, an address to the Cape Law Society earlier this month, Chaskalson warned against the erosion of rights and checks and balances in government and said there were signs that that this was happening in the country.

He cited recent proposals for a review of the powers of the Constitutional Court, for a media tribunal to exercise control over the media, and the recent opposition by the state security minister to proposed changes to the Protection of State Information Bill currently before Parliament.

"Rights are vulnerable, and when governments come under stress there is a temptation for them to brush rights aside, in order to secure their goals and entrench their power. That is why democratic legal orders have checks and balances to guard against this," he said.