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Getting to know Justice Edwin Cameron

21 November 2014
Justice Edwin Cameron at the Public Dialogues hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Justice Edwin Cameron at the Public Dialogues hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

The Centre for Conflict Resolution hosted the most interesting Public Dialogue recently where they launched the book Justice: A Personal Account by one of the most amazing leaders in South Africa; Justice Edwin Cameron, a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Justice Cameron is one of the few leaders who courageously criticised the former South African President Thabo Mbeki about his approach to HIV/AIDS medication. Many of our leaders simply participate in reproducing practices that leave the poor in even more dire situations and Justice Cameron would not abide it.

1999 is an important year not only for Justice Cameron, but also for South Africans who identify as gay and those who are living with HIV and AIDS. It is rare in any country around the world for leaders to come out and admit that they are living with HIV and that they are gay. Justice Cameron did just that and by this courageous, selfless act, he empowered and renewed perceptions on life and ARVs. 15 years on and he looks amazing: living proof that access to medication can and will prolong the lives of South Africans living with HIV and AIDS.

When the Judge of the Western Cape High Court, Justice Lee Bozalek, also a discussant of the public dialogue, asked Justice Cameron what his thought process was for coming out in 1999, he answered by saying that after he fell ill and quickly recovered because of the ARVs, he felt an activist impulse and from that moment wished to see the price of the ARVs go down so that it would be accessed by every individual who needed it. He claimed in other talks that he could afford the ARVs but the reality for many South Africans at the time is that they could not afford the medication.

Coming out of the closet was designed to drive down the price of the ARVs and also to support the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)’s fight against the government at that time. Justice Bozalek asked perhaps one of the most important questions at the launch; Who was the book aimed at? The answer was simply refreshing; “It is for non-lawyers!” he said.

The book launched at this public dialogue addresses more than one issue; it is so much more than just about disclosing your sexual preference, it is also a very useful tool for South Africans to fight stigma and to educate about how all South Africans are supported by our Constitution. The Constitution has also triumphed in the protection and promotion of gay rights.

This book also eliminates the concept of the “faceless judge” which has been a practice for many years in the legal system. Judges, in order to be impartial, needed to keep their ‘private lives private’, which meant that their beliefs, sexual orientation and their stance on public issues should never be publicly stated.

Justice Cameron is a human rights lawyer and an activist for gay rights. This is clearly stated publicly. Justice Bozalek asked whether this kind of disclosure could impede the judges’ independence when handing down judgments. He alluded to the judicial persona that is preferred and expected by the public. The answer was simply that being open about his beliefs and his stance on issues does not put him in a position where he is not true to the Constitution.

Mbongeni Ngwenya – if i could… Programme Assistant with Justice Edwin Cameron at the Public Dialogues hosted by The Centre for Conflict Resolution.

Mbongeni Ngwenya – if i could… Programme Assistant with Justice Edwin Cameron at the Public Dialogues hosted by The Centre for Conflict Resolution.

In recent years we have seen that when power is exercised, it does not like to be criticised. The Chapter 9 institutions created under the South African Constitution to guard our democracy have come under fire and the office of the Public Protector has been criticised negatively and often unfairly.  Justice Davis asked whether it was possible for our courts to evade discontent and resentment from the government and the public. Justice Cameron argued that it was important for courts and other Chapter 9 institutions to remain true to their task and duty, to be always impartial no matter the consequences that may come. He continued to say that judges should not always expect their judgments to be accepted and that they should only be concerned about the law and what the Constitution expects from them.

 Justice Davis asked whether it was possible for our courts to evade discontent and resentment from the government and the public. Justice Cameron argued that it was important for courts and other Chapter 9 institutions to remain true to their task and duty, to be always impartial no matter the consequences that may come. He continued to say that judges should not always expect their judgments to be accepted and that they should only be concerned about the law and what the Constitution expects from them.

The survival and role of the Constitution forms an important part of South Africans’ lives and it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that it is kept alive and meaningful as our democracy grows. Practical solutions to putting an end to corruption in government and private sector, courts and our communities begin with rigorous civil participation. We need to acknowledge the indispensable role of the Chapter 9 institutions in our democracy and support their cause as they are working on public benefit. Supporting and strengthening these institutions allows for accountability and transparency within the government. Justice Cameron calls also for a deeper participation from South Africans.

Do we belong to any organisation or political party that we voted for? If so, do we go to meetings and make suggestions? These tedious and very important actions will contribute to efforts of holding our leaders accountable to their actions and promises.

To listen to the public dialogue, click here, http://www.ccr.org.za/index.php/pdialogues/category/206-edwin-cameron.

 

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