Being a mensch first, Edwin-style

Justice Edwin Cameron has, over the past week, appropriately been lauded for his brilliant jurisprudence and demonstrable commitment to social justice activism in our country.(Madelene Cronje/M&G)

Justice Edwin Cameron has, over the past week, appropriately been lauded for his brilliant jurisprudence and demonstrable commitment to social justice activism in our country.(Madelene Cronje/M&G)

I think Edwin fancies his gaydar as being pretty accurate. He is also a master at not openly displaying any private assumptions he might be holding about someone he doesn’t know well. So why on earth he decided, on this particular occasion, to make a judgment call about my sexuality, is beyond me.
But, it is a hilarious little anecdote we have both enjoyed retelling over the years.

He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College in 2003. Even by the generally grandiose and anxiety-inducing standards of Oxford University, this particular college — founded in the 15th century — is an intimidating structure filled with only the weirdest and brightest of the bright. It is little wonder he was a visiting fellow. (No, you are not weird, Edwin, but you are one of the brightest of the bright). His incredible intellect fitted naturally among the residents of All Souls College and I was lucky enough to be invited to lunch there with him.

Being more tjatjarag and more precocious than many of the scholars in my cohort, who often addressed him formally, I soon engaged him. I addressed him as a mentor and called him Edwin very quickly.

At some point over lunch, he asked me how I was enjoying my time abroad thus far and whether I was missing family, or a girlfriend, back home.

I have always struggled with euphemisms, so fired back very quickly: “I don’t have a girlfriend back home. I am gay, Edwin.”

I can still see him laughing at his “faux pas”. Maybe he thought he was the only butch gay in the village?

For someone who is usually one of the most emotionally intelligent human beings in any room, he learned a fantastic lesson to truly never make assumptions.

The lines between mentoring and friendship, from that point on, started to blur.

I still consider him both, even if, being the consummate professional he is, he has taken great care to err on the side of prudence by ensuring that our free-flowing conversations during my student years gave way to necessary distance between his independence as a jurist and my work as a broadcaster and writer, once my work within the media gained a bit of momentum.

I respected that principled commitment to eliminate susceptibility to criticism of undue bias and now, on a selfish level, I look forward, yet again, to less guardedness on his part as he enters a new phase of his fruitful life.

Justice Edwin Cameron has, over the past week, appropriately been lauded for his brilliant jurisprudence and demonstrable commitment to social justice activism in our country.

He retires after 25 years on the Bench with a record that will see him recalled in judicial history as one of the finest and most gifted legal minds of our time.

There is a lot I could, and still want to, write about Cameron’s judicial record. But those of us who have been privileged enough, even for short periods of time, to get to know him beyond the title of “Justice Cameron” know that he has qualities that make him an exceptional South African and human being, quite apart from his reputation as a lawyer.

It is these qualities, I think, that should be lifted to the surface and admired, even before we get to his work on HIV and Aids, queer rights, social justice, activism and the law.

I have only ever met a handful of people in my life who combine calm, rationality, pragmatism and also deep empathy as effortlessly as Justice Edwin Cameron does.

Edwin doesn’t wait to speak; he listens. And he listens deeply, patiently and completely. It is that capacity that he activates when he finally does speak, write or offer advice — if advice is sought from him.

I didn’t cite him in my first book, A Bantu In My Bathroom, because he doesn’t like being applauded for just being himself, but I feel it is appropriate to do so now, and ask for forgiveness after publication.

I wrote about my exposure to HIV in a chapter titled “There’s something I have to tell you”. I tell the story of my panic when an American filmmaker I had had unprotected sex with in London told me, while I was visiting him in New York, that he was HIV positive. The first person I called, while I was freaking out, was Edwin. He told me he would call back after getting off the road and promptly did so.

He was beautifully calm, in that Edwin-manner so many of us around him know too well. He had, again Edwin-style, the uncanny ability to simultaneously show incredible rationality in the content of his advice and in the questions he posed to me, and to respond non-judgmentally to the risk I had put myself under. He went the extra mile and, all the way from South Africa, helped me to access resources in New York so that I could get myself tested.

Now, consider the fact that I am but one of countless people in his life who have benefited from the deeply personal interest and care that he displays. Edwin’s friends, family, comrades, mentees, colleagues, godchildren, people who work for him, and even countless strangers, could add book-length stories to mine.

And, because of his humility, I am actually holding back here on a full description of what Edwin has done for me and others, on too many occasions.

Even when I was already back in Johannesburg and carving out the beginnings of my career, I could (and still can) call Edwin. He always makes time, because he genuinely cares about people. I know all too well the taste of that quiche Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was chuckling about Edwin serving him for lunch in his chambers.

He is, first and foremost, a mensch, and that is the basis of his jurisprudence.

He is also a skilled communicator whose ability to persuade, without shouting or humiliating an interlocutor, is instructive in a time of horrifically unkind public discourse here and around the world.

To take one example, I remember shifting my position on strategic activism when Edwin explained to me the importance of selecting the right kinds of argument when engaging certain leaders.

At the time, I was adamant that condoms should be allowed in prisons, most importantly because men have sex with men, but also because homosexuality is morally acceptable.

He of course agreed, but gently persuaded me that one might want to set aside the moral premise when dealing with a homophobic leader who holds the keys to the country’s prisons and appeal to their nonmoral interests instead. Convincing them on the grounds of stopping a public health crisis, the devastating economic consequences of sexually transmitted infections, or the possible spread of HIV would probably be better arguments to use.

That was his political insight as an activist taming my theoretical reasoning as a moral philosophy student.

I will spare him here, for now, a wonderful bit of revenge I got, as a youngster, critiquing some of his work on the Bench. Suffice it to say that Edwin’s other praiseworthy attribute, and one that we can all emulate in our public discourse, is intellectual humility.

He is moved by a commitment to truth and cogency, and doesn’t hold on to a view just because it is a view he had already committed to paper.

Every South African should read his books, Witness to Aids and Justice, two of the most important works of non-fiction over the past 15 years and an insight into his mind.

In the first, Cameron shows us the power of visibility. When he writes about how democratic Aids is in who it affects in society — spoiler alert: everyone including a powerful, white, middle-class and educated judge — he fights the stigma that causes anxiety in persons living with HIV. It is anxiety that, in turn, weakens the immune system, needlessly rapidly.

Stigma loves falsehoods. Witness to Aids dismantles major falsehoods about HIV and Aids. It also shatters falsehoods about the queer community.

Edwin’s life is a testament to the power of visibility. Living openly as a gay man infected with HIV, when he is not the stereotypical picture of either, is a form of performative activism for which we owe him a huge debt.

In Justice, he writes about his early life, which was very tough. This book teaches us that you cannot know about the full life of a person just by knowing their skin colour. He experienced incredible childhood trauma and familial rupture, all of which shows us how he came to be so profoundly committed to using the law to transform society — even while recognising that the law must be supplemented by social activism and servant leadership within the political arena.

Law students theorise about “value-laden approaches to legal interpretation”. In Edwin’ s life, the connection between deprivation and using the Bench to help change the structures of an unjust society, become real.

The best retirement gift we can give Justice Cameron is to commit ourselves to closing the gap between the optimistic vision in the constitution and the rapacious behaviour of too many people in positions of power that threaten the foundations of our democracy. 

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