6 December 2012
Tributes continued to pour in for the late Arthur Chaskalson, South Africa’s former Chief Justice and the first president of the Constitutional Court, with mourners attending an official memorial service in Johannesburg on Wednesday remembering him as a man who served his country with humility.
President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the government-organised service at Johannesburg City Hall, described Chaskalson as prolific jurist and a “legal legend of our time”.
Chaskalson, who died at the age of 81 on 1 December after a battle with leukaemia, was buried on Monday. The national flag has been flown at half-mast at all state buildings since his passing.
He served as the first president at the Constitutional Court and later as Chief Justice of South Africa from November 2001 until his retirement in 2005.
During apartheid, Chaskalson represented members of the liberation movements in several major political trials, including the Rivonia trial. He has been widely praised for his role in the struggle against apartheid and his contribution to South Africa’s successful transitional period.
Zuma told the gathering that South Africans would remember Chaskalson not only for his commitment to law and the Constitution, but for his contribution to the attainment of the country’s democracy.
‘Unwavering fighter for freedom’
“He has been a solid and an unwavering fighter for freedom, human rights and social justice. Despite the threats of being jailed or losing their clients, they [Chaskalson and others] soldiered on … they knew that each case was an uphill battle,” Zuma said.
He said Chaskalson’s role in building South Africa’s Constitution and his subsequent leadership of the Constitutional Court could not be underrated.
Chaskalson wanted to see a society where all South Africans had water, food on the table, and could fall asleep without fear at night, a society where every community had a school and clinics with dedicated nurses, Zuma said.
“Once we have achieved these goals, we would have made his contribution worth it. We commit to do better, working with other arms of the state to reverse the burden of the past injustices.”
Friends and colleagues in the legal fraternity described him as an intelligent individual and a giant of the legal profession.
‘Mandela held him in high esteem’
Veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos said Chaskalson represented activists from different political persuasions with distinct professionalism.
“I know that Arthur was not a member of any political party, he would not allow any organisation to be an impediment to his independent thinking … President Nelson Mandela held him in high esteem, he enjoyed the respect of the profession, he was a member and respected by a lot of other people in and out of the profession,” said Bizos.
Former Chief Justice Pius Langa remembered Chaskalson as a man who was humble and showed respect to all he interacted with. His life philosophy was driven by a determination to uplift the poor and marginalised, a cause he fought for until the end.
“His influence ranged far and wide. He not only had wisdom and high principle; he was generous and shared his talent. He spoke in a quiet, modest tone and never raised his voice, even in times of provocation,” Langa said.
Chaskalson used his expertise to assist the country during the negotiations for the new Constitution with its world-renowned Bill of Rights.
“We were extremely fortunate to have had a person of his calibre. He built the institution [Constitutional Court] to what it is today; today our court stands as a shining exemplar throughout the world.”
Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said: “He, more than anyone else, understood the link between the struggle before and the struggle after the democratic revolution. He was faithful to his oath of office.
“We promise to defend fearlessly the independence of the judiciary,” Moseneke said. “We must be part of the transformation project to help our country realise its goals.”