Shaun de Waal
The timing and setting of Judge Edwin Cameron's disclosure to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) that he is HIV positive - while being interviewed for a post on the Constitutional Court - ensured its impact.
Yet it did not come entirely out of the blue: such a coolly courageous action is of a piece with Cameron's many years of activism in this area, and is typical of the kind of delicate balancing act between private and public of which he is a consummate master.
His decision to confront this issue "frontally", as he put it, is also characteristic. When he was first interviewed by the JSC for a Constitutional Court position in 1997, Cameron was lauded by Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed, who said: "It seems that you were so devastating in your replies that it was a technical knockout."
But Cameron himself pointed out why that wouldn't necessarily mean he got the job: "certain considerations", he said, might count against him. "What are those other considerations?" asked one of the jurists. Cameron shot back: "Race."
Such an episode prefigures this week's blunt honesty. But it also highlights Cameron's quick wit, a quality long appreciated by his friends and colleagues. Cameron is capable, indeed, of a delightfully camp jab of humour, casually poking fun at a friend's foibles, for instance - but he is also a man who will make a point of phoning someone to say he thinks they've done good work.
The tall, imposing Cameron had the gravitas of a judge some time before he was elevated to the Bench, but stuffy he is not. He will slip into gay slang to ask if you've had enough to "dora" (drink, that is), and he is a charming host who will proudly point out the ducks he keeps in the garden of his striking modernist house.
Cameron's academic trajectory was meteoric. A Rhodes scholar sent to Oxford, he got two degrees there with first-class honours (and a Vinerian scholarship) to add to his bachelor of arts from Stellenbosch and his LLB from Unisa - both cum laude.
"He could have made a fortune at the Bar," says his friend, Democratic Party MPL Peter Leon, "but he gave it up because he didn't like the things he had to do."
Cameron joined the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) at Wits University in 1986. His work there in labour law led, with what seems in retrospect a little like destiny revealing itself, to his work in the realm of HIV/Aids.
Cameron, who said this week he had revealed that he is "living with Aids" in order to highlight the plight of the millions of infected South Africans, has been a key player in the formulation of legal and legislative approaches to HIV/Aids.
He was a founder member the National Aids Council of South Africa, which brought together NGOs, the African National Congress - not yet in government - and the then state bodies to formulate a response to the looming crisis. A national charter of rights for people with HIV/Aids was drafted, as well as a national Aids plan which was accepted by the ANC when it came to power in 1994.
Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma (ironically, one of the plan's drafters) may have all but ignored the plan since she took office, but it did set the agenda on combating discrimination against people with HIV/Aids in the workplace. Its impact on the subsequent Employment Equity Bill's provisions on HIV/Aids was significant.
Cameron founded the Aids Law Project (ALP) at Cals in 1993, aiming to provide a legal response to HIV/Aids in the context of human rights. As the ALP's Mark Heyward says: "Cameron pioneered the idea in South Africa of using the law to defend people with HIV and Aids."
Cameron and the ALP initiated actions which, says Heyward, "have had an enormous impact on public policy". The ALP, for instance, went into battle with the Department of Correctional Services on behalf of prisoners stigmatised because they were HIV-positive or had Aids.
Then there was the 1993 McGeary case, in which a doctor breached the confidentiality of a patient by revealing the patient's HIV/Aids status to other medical practitioners (on the golf course). The patient sued, losing the case in a magistrate's court, but winning - with Cameron's help - when it went to the Appeal Court.
The McGeary case established the right to confidentiality in the health-care environment, and made clear the legally binding nature of the South African Medical and Dental Council's regulations on confidentiality. This precedent is still followed today, and the code on Aids and employment drafted by Cameron was highly influential on the Southern African Development Conference's own later code.
Since 1996 Cameron - who was elevated to the Bench in 1994 - has chaired the South African Law Commission's committee on HIV/Aids, which recommends national policy on issues such as "wilful transmission", informed consent on testing, and the mandatory testing of sex offenders such as rapists. Cameron came to issues of HIV/Aids and employment out of his earlier work in labour and industrial law. In 1986 he and co-author Martin Brassey published The New Labour Law, now regarded as the seminal work on the subject.
But Cameron's long history of human rights activism as a lawyer goes further back. In the Eighties, he was involved in the retrial of the Sharpeville Six, the resistance to the incorporation of the Moutse area into the KwaNdebele homeland, and defended conscientious objectors Ivan Toms and David Bruce. He also went into battle on behalf of actors using cabaret to satirise apartheid.
He has been outspoken in his criticisms of the judiciary. Cals director David Unterhalter says: "Edwin took a very prominent and at the time unpopular stance in terms of the judiciary's performance under apartheid. He challenged judges in security cases, for instance, and the way the Bench had distorted justice and advanced oppression."
In the Nineties, Cameron was an invaluable adviser to the movement for gay rights, playing no small part in its successful campaigns for legal protection against discrimination. Here, again, Cameron's ability to balance the public and the private is evident: besides his legal finesse, his openness about his own homosexuality turned him into a much-admired role model who is a sought-after speaker at gay rallies and events. He co-edited, with Mark Gevisser, one of the very first books to cover the gay experience in South Africa, Defiant Desire.
As a judge, Cameron has been noted for his progressive judgments. In 1997 he wrote the landmark decision in the case of Bantu Holomisa v Argus Newspapers, in which Holomisa had sued the papers for libel.
In a judgment that stood out starkly against the background of South Africa's history of judicial conservatism in this area, Cameron ruled that it was sufficient for a publication to prove its reporters had been diligent in their investigation of the facts and that the decision to publish was reasonable.
Many have lauded Cameron's abilities and his suitability for the Constitutional Court position. Unterhalter calls him "one of the leading lawyers of his generation, possibly the leading lawyer. His record is one of great balance and judiciousness."
"A man of remarkable ability," says Brassey, praising "the lucidity of his mind". He's a good person to have at a conference, says Brassey, because he can coherently sum up a plethora of disparate views. And, he says, "his compassion is legendary". (Brassey does, however, express a little disquiet at what he calls the "lionisation" of Cameron. As a judge, he cautions, "he's young in the job yet".)
What is certain, though, is that if Cameron gets the Constitutional Court job, he will be bringing to it a formidable arsenal of legal skills and insights. He will also contribute the personal passion and conviction that led him, this week, to put himself, as it were, on the block. As Leon says, "He's someone who wants to make a difference." –© Mail & Guardian
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