Justice Edwin Cameron
“The law cannot be about injustice. The law cannot be about securing privilege and accumulating wealth only. The law has to be directed to securing justice for all people. That is what the South African Constitution promises and it’s what our history charges us to make real.”
Justice Edwin Cameron served as a judge for 25 years on the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He is well known, amongst many roles, for his activism in HIV/AIDS and gay rights.
Early Life and Career
Edwin Cameron was born in Pretoria on 15 February 1953. He completed his schooling at Pretoria Boys High School, and in 1971 was conscripted into the army. Cameron attended Stellenbosch University on the Anglo American Open Scholarship where he obtained a BA Law and an Honours degree in Latin, both cum laude.
Being white and privileged played a pivotal part in the opportunities I had, and what I now am. And that has given me a great sense … Not a burden, because I don’t think one should be burdened by privilege, you should be creatively energised by it – and that’s given me a sense of how opportunities should be made available in society … Governmentally created and offered opportunities.
Cameron lectured in Latin and Classical Studies before studying at Oxford University (Keble College) on a Rhodes Scholarship. At Oxford University, he earned a BA in Jurisprudence and the BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law). Cameron was awarded the prestigious Vinerian Scholarship which is awarded by Oxford University to the student who “gives the best performance in the examination for the degree of Bachelor of Civil Laws”. Cameron received his LLB from the University of South Africa, where he was awarded a medal for the best law graduate.
I went to Oxford to do classics and I swapped after a term and started late on law. And it was very much a sense of trying to make my life meaningful through the capacity to be meaningful to others, to help others … By the time I got back, as I’ve just said, I was in flaming activist mode and wanted to use my law to make a difference in South African society.
Cameron practised at the Johannesburg Bar from 1983 to 1994. From 1986, he was a human rights lawyer based at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), where in 1989 he was awarded a personal professorship in law. His practice covered areas including labour and employment law; defence of African National Congress (ANC) freedom fighters charged with treason; conscientious and religious objection; land tenure and forced removals; and gay and lesbian equality.
From 1988, he advised the National Union of Mineworkers on HIV/AIDS, and helped draft and negotiate the industry’s first comprehensive AIDS agreement with the Chamber of Mines. While at CALS, he drafted the Charter of Rights on HIV and AIDS, co-founded the AIDS Consortium (a national affiliation of non-governmental organisations working on AIDS), which he chaired for its first three years, and founded and was the first director of the AIDS Law Project. He oversaw the gay and lesbian movement’s submissions to the Kempton Park negotiating process. This, with other work, helped secure the express inclusion of sexual orientation in the equality clause (section 9) of the South African Constitution.
We have the conditions for continuing our just transformation, for taking it far further. And we have the social restiveness, the constitutional apparatus, the principles and values to achieve it.
In September 1994 President Nelson Mandela conferred the status of senior consultus (senior counsel or silk) on Cameron. Mandela appointed him an acting judge and later a judge of the High Court. In 1999/2000 he served on the Constitutional Court as an Acting Justice, and in 2000 he was appointed a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal.
It was a tremendously good experience, very, very demanding, the Johannesburg High Court, and I believe the pressure has only got worse. It’s got an enormous turnover, so you do trials, civil trials, criminal trials, motion court, urgent work, an enormous amount of insolvency, commercial work, contractual cases, completely fascinating and a very, very good grounding.
Cameron authored the book, Witness to AIDS and Justice: A Personal Account. He also co-authored Honoré’s South African Law of Trusts with Tony Honoré.
Appointment to the Constitutional Court
Cameron was appointed a Justice of the Constitutional Court in 2008 and served until his retirement in 2019.
I believe that the most profound promise of the Constitution is a promise of non-discrimination in a society which has been very deeply afflicted by discrimination and constructed upon it. Within that context, I do not think that the commitment in the equality clause to non-discrimination against gays and lesbians is a particularly singular one. It is historically singular because it is the first Constitution to mention it by name, but within a context of a commitment to equality and to non-discrimination … I do not think that it will be difficult for me to be dispassionate.
In 2009, the judges of the Constitutional Court instituted a system of prison visits which took effect from 2010. Each judge was allocated several prisons to visit during the year which entailed the judge informing the prison of the visit, inspecting it, and compiling a report. Cameron took this to heart and was a big proponent of the prison visits. Cameron visited 15 prisons, correctional and repatriation centres while serving on the Constitutional Court.
Judgments of Interest
The Citizen 1978 (Pty) Ltd and Others v McBride (2011)
In 2003, Robert John McBride, was a candidate to head the Ekurhuleni metro police. Earlier, while working as an operative of the armed wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, he carried out a car bomb attack outside a restaurant on the Durban beachfront. The explosion killed three young women and injured 69 other people. McBride was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. In 1997 he applied for amnesty under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (Reconciliation Act). This was granted in 2001.
In 2003, the Citizen newspaper published a number of articles questioning McBride’s candidacy for the police post. It expressed the view that McBride was unsuitable because he was a “criminal” and a “murderer”. The articles referred to the 1986 bombing. McBride sued the Citizen for defamation. He contended that receiving amnesty meant that the label “murderer” did not apply to him. The main question was whether a person convicted of murder, but granted amnesty under the Reconciliation Act, can later be called a “criminal” and a “murderer” in opposing his appointment to a public position.
In a judgment written by Justice Cameron, the Constitutional Court found that the Reconciliation Act did not make the fact that McBride committed murder untrue. And that Act did not prohibit frank public discussion of his act as “murderer”. Nor did it prevent him being described as a “criminal”.
An important question is whether it is appropriate to see the Reconciliation Act as constituting a definitive and final pronouncement on the meaning of reconciliation. Has public discourse on the reconciliation process and its meaning ended, and must it in law be deemed to have ended? The answer must be No. A more supple approach is to accept that the meaning of reconciliation is still unfolding, and that the fragilities of its meaning cannot be prescribed by law: and hence the best chance for successful reconciliation lies in fostering open public discussion. In this, boundaries should be set not by assessing the reasonableness or good taste of the content of debate, but by the process within which debate occurs.
Glenister v President of the Republic of South Africa (2011)
This landmark case dealt with whether the disbandment of the Scorpions, a special unit set up to tackle crime and corruption, and its replacement with the Hawks, also a crime fighting unit with a different structure to the Scorpions, was constitutional.
In a judgment written by Justice Cameron and Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke, the Constitutional Court pointed out that corruption undermines the rights in the Bill of Rights, and imperils South Africa’s democracy. It found that the Constitution imposes an obligation on the state to establish and maintain an independent body to combat corruption and organised crime. An anti-corruption unit that is not adequately independent is not a reasonable constitutional measure.
When corruption and organised crime flourishes, sustainable development and economic growth are stunted. And in turn, the stability and security of society is put at risk.
In Justice Cameron’s book, Witness to AIDS, he refers to seemingly more mundane judgments that however had a profound impact on the lives of the individuals. In one instance, he writes of a criminal case which he heard in October 1997 while sitting on the Vereeniging Circuit Court:
The first case my assessors and I heard involved a vigilante killing. A family claimed that the victim had murdered their uncle. They had brought the victim to their home to confront him. When he tried to escape, they beat, stoned and stabbed him to death. Then they poured petrol over his body. The district surgeon told us that the flames had reduced his body to charcoal. One murder had led to an even more gruesome second. My assessors and I convicted two nephews of the first victim for murdering the second … In our judgment we emphasised that justice was, or should be, the exclusive prerogative of the courts.
Life after the Constitutional Court
Cameron was appointed as inspecting judge of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) for a three-year term with effect from 1 January 2020.
Family and Personal Life
Cameron is the youngest of three children, with two older sisters Laura and Jeanie. His eldest sister, Laura, was tragically killed by a delivery van in Pretoria as a child. Cameron credits Jeanie for helping make him the person that he is:
I feel gratitude for the encompassing and unconditional love that my family has given me – my sister Jeanie Richter, my niece Marlise Richter and her spouse Marc Lewis and their baby Linda. … [Jeanie’s] family and their granite-solid love have been pillars of security and stability in my life.
Cameron met his partner, Nhlanhla Mnisi, in 2015. They live together in Johannesburg.
In the Words of Others
Edwin is not only a selfless person, he is also a humble person and he is non-racialism epitomised … For the sake of those suffering masses, he not only spoke but he acted. He moved around and mobilised support for the needful to be done. Thanks to him … the lives of many South Africans, the lives of many Africans, the lives of many people across the globe have been saved.
Cameron’s service to humanity is incontestable and hard to quantify. I have had the privilege of working with him for exactly 25 years. I described him as ‘the father of the human rights response to HIV in South Africa’. What I think we’ve seen in his life as a judge, is that he’s taken all those values that he developed as an activist and has infused constitutional law with those values.
I don’t think that words can ever do justice to really what he is. He is larger than life. Cameron has a very bright mind. He is extremely intelligent, he has clarity of thought. But even more importantly, he has a deep sense of his own humanity and the humanity of others.
Judge Cameron is a remarkable person. But it is not his intellect, status, accolades or charitable work for which he will be remembered. It is his compassion for his fellow persons. He takes the time to get to know every person who engages with him regardless of their social position, race or gender; he cares about their lives and their families. When he speaks with you, you truly feel like you are the only person in the world.