Cameron and the caring state

No minimal state: The government has a duty to fix social ills because South Africa is a grossly unjust and unequal society, Justice Edwin Cameron believes. (Photo: Madelene Cronje)

No minimal state: The government has a duty to fix social ills because South Africa is a grossly unjust and unequal society, Justice Edwin Cameron believes. (Photo: Madelene Cronje)

Judge Edwin Cameron stands ramrod straight. An imposing height married to the austere features of a Herman Charles Bosman character and a reputation as one of the Con- stitutional Court’s foremost intellectuals makes for quite an intimidating presence.

Yet, as he moves around his chambers laughing at a “naughty question” and searching for the court’s Oriani-Ambrosini vs Sisulu judgment that contains a phrase that he “had the most enjoyment concurring with in the last 20 years”, a capacious generosity of spirit follows Cameron around the room.

As does the memory of a passage from his most recent memoir, Justice: A Personal Account. “I’ve always secretly admired queens — gay men whose behaviour is extrava- gantly and unapologetically feminine,” wrote Cameron.
“They have a courage that I have always lacked. Instead, I deliberately coached myself to act with mannerisms and gestures I reckoned were more masculine. Stood squarely. Dropped my voice.”

The Constitutional Court’s first openly gay and HIV-positive judge may have “eschewed flamboyant gestures and speech” but he has demonstrated a formidable courage in many other ways: coming out as a 30-year-old in 1983 after recognising the “political imperative for me to not just fight apartheid, but to fight for this other way of living that apartheid stigmatised”. 

His work as a human rights lawyer, as a proponent of the government providing access to antiretrovirals and, since 2009, as one of 11 arbiters of a Constitution that is considered the most progressive on Earth.

The “naughty question” he is seeking to respond to concerns Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s perceived conservatism, allied to his Christian beliefs. Cameron, who describes Mogoeng as a “hard-working person of serious purpose, deeply committed to the Constitution”, ferrets out the judgment authored by Mogoeng. It found that individual members of Parliament, including opposition party members, should be allowed to initiate legislation.

Cameron reads out the phrase he’s enamoured with: “Ours is a constitutional democracy that is designed to ensure that the voiceless are heard and that even those of us who would, given the choice, have preferred not to entertain the views of the marginalised or the powerless minorities, listen.”

“Now that to me is a wonderful constitutional philosophy,” says Cameron, “and that is Chief Justice Mogoeng speaking and I admire that, and I subscribe to that, and I believe he means all minorities.”

Cameron counterpunches the perception that Mogoeng’s membership of a church that deems homosexuality immoral translates into a homophobic chief justice.

“In his personal approach to me he has made it emphatically clear that I am welcome in his home and that I am welcome in his home with any partner that I might want to take. I think that is significant.”

Listening to Cameron talk about the possibilities in the Constitution feels a bit like listening to Jimi Hendrix playing the Fender Stratocaster live. It is about being in the presence of grandmasters of their craft, whose spirit and soul appear one with their instrument.

The Constitution’s generosity of spirit in recognising the irrational injustices of South Africa’s past and requiring a future that is egalitarian and provides dignity for every citizen burns within the 61-year-old Cameron.

He marks out a few seminal points on his own journey towards politicisation. One “pivotal moment” was as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University when the death of Steve Biko compelled him to read the Black Consciousness leader’s work.

Cameron admits to being “politically inept” at the time and says he was ashamed that, previously, at Stellenbosch University “I was quiescent”.

Biko’s writing “was so appealing across the racial lines, appealing to a racial self-assertiveness, a racial pride, not a domination of others or a subordination of others but a simple self-reliant pride starting with the self”.

Another significant moment came to a 10-year-old Cameron, back home in Bloemfontein from the Queenstown children’s home for poor families he and sister Jeanie attended during the school term.

A woman, never seen before or since, knocked on the door of the family home and presented him with an envelope with R10 inside. In Justice, Cameron makes an inflation- linked calculation that it was the equivalent of R686 in present terms.

“I think it changed my political consciousness — it didn’t change my life — it sharpened my awareness of social disparities and then made me a very strong proponent of public giving. There should be a charitable state. I believe in the power of a charitable state and that is one of the reasons for my enthusiasm for our Constitution,” he says.

“Our Constitution doesn’t create a nanny state — that is a piece of invective that doesn’t impress me — but it creates a state that cares for every one of the people living in our country.”

Recognising the effectiveness of social grants, Cameron says the Constitution “shows, at a constitutional and institutional level, the sort of caring, fellow caring, that we should all be exhibiting in our lives”.

He says that public giving and private charity allowed him to attend Pretoria Boys High, “one of the best government schools in the country, if not the world”, Stellenbosch and, subsequently, Oxford.

He is cogniscant of his privilege and the role the colour of his skin has played in his elevation from poverty.

“Although I came from a very poor white family, the doors were open for me, they were open for me as a white person. It showed me the power of state acts, of social remediation, of social fixing to address social ills. The state has a duty to fix social ills. This idea of a minimal state is not one that impresses me. Certainly not one in a grossly unjust and unequal society.”

An avid cyclist and bridge player, who finds little time for the latter because of the increased workload at the Constitutional Court, Cameron says the job “does feel heavy, not to be self-important, but I do feel privileged and lucky to have this job, but it’s not an easy job”.

Especially in a country that, despite all the promise of a truly singular future, does get mired down in a cacophonous present where race, class and staggering inequality are inescapable. One where a democratically elected government sometimes doesn’t adhere to court rulings or legislation in everyday acts, such as effecting evictions.

Cameron recognises that there is sometimes a disjuncture between the Constitution, the law and government actions, but not to the point where it has become a constitutional crisis, as it has in Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

For Cameron, we are a “disconsolate society”, which he partially attributes to the fact that, unlike the German state that took responsibility for Nazism, “there was never a moment when the white minority took responsibility [for apartheid] and said, ‘Yes, we were wrong.’

“We never had an unadulterated apology from [former president FW] De Klerk — that is what is missing.”

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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