Cameron in Constitutional Court

[Image] Justice Edwin Cameron addressing the Plenary
Session at the 17th International AIDS
Conference, held in Mexico in August 2008.
(Image: International Aids Society)

[Image] A memorial to the late Aids activist Gugu
Dlamini, killed for making her HIV-positive
status public. Dlamini was the inspiration
for Cameron’s unveiling of his own
status. (Image: Avert)

Janine Erasmus

A decade after former president Thabo Mbeki blocked his appointment, Judge Edwin Cameron has taken his seat on the Bench of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa dealing with constitutional matters.

President Kgalema Motlanthe announced on 31 December 2008 that Cameron would be the next Constitutional Court judge, taking over the position left by Justice Tholakele “Tholie” Madala, who retired at the end of 2008. Cameron moves into his chambers at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg in January 2009.

Other top judges in the running for the position were Cape High Court Judge Shehnaz Meer, Johannesburg High Court Judge Nigel Willis and Northern Cape Judge President Frans Kgomo.

The appointment has also made headlines because Cameron, who turns 56 in February 2009, is openly gay and was the first high-profile public figure in South Africa to reveal that he is HIV-positive. He is well-known and respected as a long-standing activist for the rights of those living with HIV, and has worked tirelessly for many years to combat the discrimination and stigma associated with the disease.

The Pretoria-born judge was moved to disclose his HIV status shortly after Aids activist Gugu Dlamini was stoned to death by a gang of boys in her neighbourhood of KwaMancinza, KwaZulu-Natal, for revealing on an isiZulu radio station that she was HIV positive. Her announcement came on 1 December, World Aids Day 1998, and she paid for it with her life. Dlamini had been a volunteer field worker for the National Association of People Living with HIV/Aids.

Cameron had lived with the knowledge of his status for three years before disclosing it. In a 2005 interview with UK magazine Positive Nation he said, “I thought, I’m living with the professional and middle-class protections, surrounded by caring friends and family, and I’m not speaking, but this woman did. That’s what compelled me to speak.”

For breaking his silence, Cameron in turn was praised by former president Nelson Mandela as one of South Africa’s new breed of heroes.

In the same interview Cameron mentioned that he had suffered no negative repercussions whatsoever in his professional or personal life, and was overwhelmed by the love and praise that had poured in for him. He confessed to being puzzled that other public figures had not felt compelled to come out and speak themselves.

A superb legal mind

Edwin Cameron grew up in Pretoria and after matriculating from Pretoria Boys’ High School and took up studies at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape. Here he completed a BA in Law followed by a BA Honours in Latin. Later he obtained his LLB through the University of South Africa.

Not content with these qualifications, Cameron was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1976 to study at Keble College, Oxford, completing two first-class degrees, a BA Jurisprudence and Batchelor of Civil Law. In 2003 he was made an honorary Fellow of Keble College and in the same year was invited to be a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford.

Cameron was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in 1983 and three years later began to practise as a human rights lawyer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies. His practice included labour and employment law; the defence of African National Congress freedom fighters charged with treason; land tenure and forced removals; objection on conscientious and religious grounds; and gay and lesbian equality.

During this time he became active in human rights relating to HIV and Aids, co-founding the Aids Consortium, a national network of NGOs addressing the needs of those suffering with Aids, and founding the Aids Law Project, among other accomplishments. He also co-drafted the Charter of Rights on Aids and HIV, the founding document of the Aids Consortium.

In 1994 President Mandela appointed him to the High Court on a temporary basis, where he chaired a commission into illegal arms deals, after which he took up a permanent position in 1995. Since 2000 Cameron has been a justice of the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein. Immediately prior to this appointment he served for a year as an Acting Justice in the Constitutional Court.

Between 1998 and 2008 Cameron chaired the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand, the institution’s governing body. His long relationship with Wits includes a seat on numerous University committees as well as the Senate.

Former Director of the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies, David Unterhalter, has referred to Cameron as ‘”one of the leading lawyers of his generation, possibly the leading lawyer”.

Cameron is current General Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarships in Southern Africa. His other roles include patronages of several charitable organisations, among them the Guild Cottage Children’s Home, the Sparrow’s Nest Children’s Hospice, the Community AIDS Response, and the Soweto HIV/Aids Counsellors’ Alliance.

Staunch Aids activist

Cameron has done stellar work in entrenching the rights of gay and lesbian people in the constitutional laws of the country, and fighting against the denial and discrimination associated with HIV and Aids. His outspoken opposition to Thabo Mbeki’s controversial stance of denial towards Aids, and reluctance to make anti-retroviral drugs available to all, earned him the disfavour of the former president. It is believed to have been a significant factor in his failure to gain an appointment to the Constitutional Court.

Legal experts today believe that Cameron’s appointment, and that of the new Minister of Health Barbara Hogan, represent a break away from the denialist policies of the past.

Cameron is the author of a number of legal books on that subject and others, such as Defiant Desire – Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, and Honoré’s South African Law of Trusts. He has also written treatises on labour and industrial law. In 2005 he put his own experiences down in writing in the book Witness to Aids, which earned him the 2006 Alan Paton award for non-fiction, together with HIV-positive journalist Adam Levin.

Among the many tokens of recognition Cameron has received from all over the world are the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2000, a special award in 2002 from the Bar of England and Wales in recognition of his work in international jurisprudence and human rights, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Excellence in Leadership Award in 2003.

For the rights of the people

The 11 judges appointed to the Constitutional Court must be independent – they may not be members of Parliament or of any political party, nor may they serve in any governmental role. Candidates are interviewed and then proposed by the Judicial Service Commission, a body that advises the government on matters relating to the administration of justice.

The successful candidates are selected by the president, in consultation with the Chief Justice and the National Assembly. Under normal circumstances, judges serve for a non-renewable term of 12 to 15 years, depending on the initial age of the judge when taking up his or her appointment.

The first judges took to the Bench in 1994 and were appointed by then president Mandela. Senior counsel and veteran struggle lawyer Arthur Chaskalson was the first president of the Constitutional Court. He was followed by the first four judges, all drawn from the ranks of the Supreme Court – Laurie Ackermann, Richard Goldstone, Tholie Madala and Ismail Mohamed.

The remaining six judges were Johann Kriegler, John Didcott, Pius Langa, Kate O’Regan, Yvonne Mokgoro, and Albie Sachs.

The Constitutional Court was officially opened by Nelson Mandela in February 1995. “The last time I appeared in court,” said Mandela on that occasion, “was to hear whether or not I was going to be sentenced to death. Today I rise not as an accused, but on behalf of the people of South Africa, to inaugurate a court South Africa has never had, a court on which hinges the future of our democracy.”

The Court’s first hearing involved the constitutionality of the death penalty, and after three days of hearings it delivered its judgement that the death penalty was indeed unconstitutional.

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