As a law student and aspirant lawyer, I, and a number of my generation, looked to Sydney Kentridge, Arthur Chaskalson and Ismail Mahomed as ideal lawyers, inspirations to us all. Today my students are inclined to look towards younger figures, one of which is most certainly Justice Edwin Cameron.
Camerons’ recent book provides solid evidence as to why he is held in the highest esteem. In our constitutional democracy, the ideal judge must possess far more than technical legal expertise, as important as this quality remains. A judge should possess a clear vision of the role the constitution must play in the reconfiguration of a legal system which suffered terrible damage under apartheid in particular, and more generally in the transformation of our society into one that substantively embraces the core values of equality, dignity and freedom. In addition, a judge should hold an emphatic regard for the other; an understanding of the diversity of South Africa and a consequent realization that his or her world vision cannot necessarily lay claim to an unqualified, universal acceptance.
Cameron’s book reveals all these qualities as he seamlessly stiches together the personal, political and the legal. He commences with the most personal recollection of his first experience of the law. His elder sister, Laura, had been killed tragically at a young age. Sitting in the chapel during the funeral as an eight year old boy, Cameron encountered his father flanked by two prison warders. He had thought that his father had been absent because of his attendance at a rehabilitation centre for his alcoholism. Only later did he find out that his father was imprisoned after being convicted of car theft.
His second encounter with the law took place a decade later when the young Cameron took a keen interest in the trial of the Dean of Johannesburg, Gonville Aubie frrench-Beytagh who was defended by Sydney Kentridge. It is interesting to read Cameron’s account of Kentridge’s cross examination of State witnesses, so different in its forensic skill to the crude and pedestrian processes that the press enthusiastically praise in contemporary trials!
Kentridge gained an acquittal for his client from the appeal court. Cameron notes that the judgment was written by the then chief justice, the obdurately conservative Oglivie Thompson. Notwithstanding previous judgments which eroded the influence of the rule of law, the chief justice now ensured that the scope of the Terrorism Act of 1967, a brutal legislative tool of the apartheid government, was significantly circumscribed. The book also deals with the successful challenges to the pass laws in the Komani and Rikhoto cases which gutted the scope of this pernicious control of the freedom of movement of black South Africans. These cases kept alive a belief in the rule of law, an played a role in ensuring the embrace of constitutional democracy.
It is to this period that Cameron turns. In keeping with the conceit of the book, he commences with the constitution and the Aids epidemic. The reader is again invited into Cameron’s private life as a person who discovers that he is living with the virus. This personal reflection only makes his observations concerning the incoherence of the Mbeki government’s policies regarding the AIDS epidemic all the more telling. In particular, Cameron documents how President Mbeki silenced so many as he questioned the efficacy of anti retroviral drugs. When the President addressed Parliament on the subject, Cameron the attack on the core scientific proposition which formed the basis for anti –retroviral treatment, describing it as speech of ‘menace.’
It was within this political context that the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) approached the courts for relief. In finding in favour of the TAC, Cameron observes that this case ‘was a test of law’s power when government behaved irrationally. And it was a test that the Constitution and the court created to guard it, passed with honour.’ Yet again, but now in the democratic era, Courts had promoted principle about irrationality With it, policy began to change. Once the government programme of anti retroviral provisioning commenced in December 2004, it rapidly became the largest of its kind in the world.
The final two sections of the book deal with diversity and socioeconomic rights. Again Cameron courageously invites the reader into his personal life, concerning his realization of difference at an early age, his struggle and then embrace of his own sexuality as well as the poverty and vulnerability encountered throughout his youth. This serves to highlight the importance of the Constitution’s majestic equality clause and the guarantee of socio economic rights. In both cases, there follows a luminous examination of the developing jurisprudence.
This eloquent book is a source of great clarity about our Constitution as well as a penetrating insight into the mind and background of a great jurist.