Justice Laurie Ackermann
“I don’t think people outside the Court realise just how much work is involved with a collegial Court of eleven, where everybody had to sit if they were available, and how important it was to try and let the Constitution speak through the judges, not the other way around.”
Justice Lourens (Laurie) Ackermann was always a passionate advocate for human rights and is often admired for his role in the development of the dignity jurisprudence in South Africa. He was one of the first justices appointed to the Constitutional Court in 1994.
Early Life and Career
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a train driver, but at the age of six I decided that one day I wanted to be a judge. Why that happened I don’t know, but I suspected my parents had one or two friends who were judges or who were about to be judges, and they made an enormous impression on me, and so I suppose that was the first influence on me. And after that, I always had as an ultimate career goal to be a judge. The idea of constitutionalism and a constitution with a Bill of Rights of course only entered the picture much, much later.
Lourens Wepener Hugo ‘Laurie’ Ackermann was born in Pretoria on 14 January 1934. He matriculated from Pretoria Boys High School in 1950. After obtaining his BA degree (cum laude) from Stellenbosch University, he went to the University of Oxford in 1954 as a Rhodes Scholar. There he obtained a BA honours in jurisprudence. He later returned to Stellenbosch to complete his LLB.
In my teen years, I was absorbed in the dominant white culture and took for granted that that was how things were, and how things would be. And I suppose my eventual rejection of apartheid in all its forms was really a slow process, which started in my early adult years and culminated in my early middle years, and it was a journey that was both philosophical and also theological.
Ackermann practised as an advocate at the Pretoria Bar from 1958 to 1980, becoming senior counsel in 1975. During this time he served on the Pretoria Bar Council and on the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.
After a number of acting appointments from 1976, he was permanently appointed to the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court in 1980. While on the Transvaal bench, he was chairman of the governing body of his old school, Pretoria Boys High as well as National Vice President of NICRO (National Institution for the Prevention of Crime and the Rehabilitation of Offenders).
In 1987, on being invited to become the first incumbent of the H. F. Oppenheimer Human Rights chair at Stellenbosch University, Ackermann requested permission from the then State President P. W. Botha to retire from the bench. Botha refused and Ackermann subsequently resigned from the bench, forfeiting his pension rights in order to take up the chair. He held this position until the end of 1992.
In 1989, as part of a group of constitutional lawyers, he participated in discussions about a future South African Constitution with the ANC-in-exile. He also served as a judge on the Lesotho Court of Appeal, and on the post-independence Namibian Supreme Court. In January 1993, he accepted reappointment to the South African Supreme Court, this time the Cape of Good Hope Provincial Division.
Ackermann has been awarded an honorary LLD by Stellenbosch University and was elected an Honorary Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. He remains an Extraordinary Professor of Public Law at the University of Stellenbosch.
Appointment to the Constitutional Court
In August 1994, Ackermann was appointed to the first bench of the Constitutional Court. While on the Court, he chaired its library committee and was intimately involved with developing the vision of the library as a world-class resource ‘in and for Africa’. Ackermann reflects on the uniqueness of sitting on the Constitutional Court:
So the whole mechanics of sitting eleven on a bench, taught one that one had to be very, very patient because there were some of one’s colleagues who at times were a little more loquacious than others. It tried one’s patience to have to wait for quite a long time before you could get in a question. I’m not a particularly patient person! But I think leadership was very important in those early times, and I think Arthur [Chaskalson] led by example, both in his patience and in his willingness to debate differing points of view, and taking the lead in it and letting everybody have a fair share in the debate.
Ackermann retired from the Court in January 2004.
Judgments of Interest
National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice (1998)
Even though South Africa’s Constitution was the first in the world to prohibit unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, there were still apartheid-era laws in place which prohibited sodomy between two consenting adult men, and which stated that public displays of affection were indecent. The Court found that the common law offence of sodomy, and its inclusion as a crime in the Sexual Offences Act, violated the rights of gay men to equality, dignity, and privacy. The so-called offences were thus found to be ‘unconstitutional and invalid’.
The nature of the power and its purpose is to criminalise private conduct of consenting adults which causes no harm to anyone else. It has no other purpose than to criminalise conduct which fails to conform with the moral or religious views of a section of society.
Carmichele v Minister of Safety and Security and Minister of Justice (2001)
In judgment written by Justices Ackermann and Goldstone, the Constitutional Court found that the state has a duty to protect women from violence after the police released a known violent offender targeting women out on bail despite pleas from the community not to.
Few things can be more important to women than freedom from the threat of sexual violence … Sexual violence and the threat of sexual violence goes to the core of women’s subordination in society. It is the single greatest threat to the self-determination of South African women.
LIFE after the constitutional court
Ackermann founded the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC). He served as Chairman of the board, setting up a world-class research institute for South Africa, with offices at Constitution Hill.
In 2005, Ackermann started writing a book, Human Dignity: Lodestar for Equality in South Africa, which was published in 2012. The book provides an in-depth analysis of human dignity and its relationship to equality in South African law.
Family and personal life
Ackermann lives with his wife, Professor Denise Ackermann, a leading feminist theologian, in Cape Town. They have three children and five grandchildren. Ackermann used to be a keen walker, a fly fisherman, and a collector of wines, wine books and wine labels. He remains a lover of wine.
In the words of others
A gentleman to the core, but he would say what he wanted to say, and say it strongly. A person like Laurie … would come to study each phase [of the building committee’s work] with particular meticulousness … Every centimetre, every part, every measurement, he would go through everything with admirable attention. It seemed funny at the time and we made jokes about it, but it was also very gratifying to know that what had been agreed upon was going to happen because of people like him.
Laurie, whom I had known virtually all my life, was a philosopher. Broad sweep of perspective with a mind and a knowledge that I could never hope to match. He wanted to fill in much more fully, more nuanced, more detailed.
No litigant could leave Justice Ackermann’s court without believing that there had been an honest pursuit of the right answer, both factually and legally. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that Justice Ackermann is one of those judges who makes the practice of law worthwhile.