This past Tuesday, Edwin Cameron appeared for the last time as a judge of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa. This final sitting of Justice Cameron ends an esteemed and much respected legal career which has seen him challenge the status quo, standing up for the rights of minorities and oppressed.
Having achieved such great success in his career, Judge Cameron’s childhood might surprise many. His father went to prison for car theft and, with his mother unable to support him, Cameron spent much of his childhood in an orphanage in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. But at a relatively young age he managed to change the trajectory of his life by winning a scholarship to attend Pretoria Boys’ High School, going on to graduate from Stellenbosch University with the help of a scholarship from Anglo-American. In 1976, having been awarded a coveted Rhodes scholarship, Cameron left for England to attend Oxford University where he obtained a BA in Jurisprudence with first class honours. He later went on to complete his LLB at the University of South Africa, where he graduated cum laude and was awarded the Johannes Voet Medallion for Best Law Graduate.
Rather than use his legal prowess for financial gain, Cameron put his knowledge to work for the greater good, seemingly unafraid of the consequences. In 1982, while working as a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Cameron famously wrote a scathing critique of the late Chief Justice L. C. Steyn, a defender of the apartheid regime. In 1987, the young lawyer argued that three senior South African judges, including former Chief Justice, Pierre Rabie, ought to resign in order to preserve the legitimacy of the judiciary.
In 1986, three years after being admitted to the Johannesburg bar, Cameron opened a human rights practice operating from the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS). He soon found himself facing off against the apartheid government in court, defending young men who refused to join the army on the basis of conscientious objection and ANC activists charged with treason. He also dealt with cases of land tenure and forced removals, as well as arguing cases relating to gay and lesbian equality.
Judge Cameron was the first senior South African official to publicly state that he was living with HIV, having contracted the virus in the 1980s. Fortunately though, he was able to afford the life saving antiretroviral drugs. His realisation that he owed his life to his relative wealth resulted in Cameron becoming a prominent Aids activist, urging the government to provide public access to treatment. In 1988, at a time when most people were unaware of, or simply unprepared to acknowledge, the existence of the virus, Cameron began advising the National Union of Mineworkers on Aids/HIV, helping to draft and negotiate the first comprehensive Aids agreement with the Chamber of Mines. While at CALS, he also founded the Aids Law Project.
On the 13th October 1990, Cameron addressed the crowd at the first pride parade in South Africa, held in Johannesburg and in 1991 oversaw the gay and lesbian movement’s submissions to CODESA, helping to secure the express prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the Constitution.
In October 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Cameron as an acting judge of the High Court and the following year he was appointed permanently to the Gauteng High Court. In 1999, Cameron served for a year as an Acting Justice at the Constitutional Court and in 2000 he was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal. In 2008, Judge Edwin Cameron was officially appointed a Justice of the Constitutional Court where he served until this past week.
Described by some as the greatest legal mind of his generation, for the past 30-plus years Edwin Cameron has used his exceptional understanding of the law to better South Africa for the good of all. We thank him for his service!