Former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson. Picture: SOWETAN
Former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson. Picture: SOWETAN

TRIBUTES from the legal fraternity to former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson continued to pour in at the weekend. The first president of the Constitutional Court was diagnosed with leukaemia last week and died in hospital on Saturday.

Referring to Chaskalson’s legal life before appointment as a judge, co-chairmen of the Law Society of South Africa, Krish Govender and Jan Stemmett, said his "immense value" to South Africa’s democracy "spans across the many years and the work he did, both as a junior and senior advocate, in supporting and defending those who struggled for justice and liberation".

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) also spoke of his commitment to democracy and constitutionalism during apartheid days, saying it was not "newly found" post-1994.

"For many decades before 1994 he had used his legal skills to defend those who fought apartheid and to fight the cause of the poor and marginalised," Nadel said.

His colleague on the Constitutional Court and chairman of legal organisation Freedom Under Law, Justice Johann Kriegler said that from 1978, Chaskalson had "devoted himself" to the Legal Resources Centre, a public interest law practice — "leaving his very successful practice" at the bar to do so.

"At that time in our history, challenges were many," Nadel said. "With the benefit of Judge Chaskalson’s sharp intellect, Nadel was able, together with its members, and other legal organisations, to formulate the legal order that was envisaged after apartheid."

National chairman of Advocates for Transformation, Dumisa Ntsebeza SC, said that when he travelled to the US with Chaskalson in 1987, he was so impressed by his "farsightedness into what the future legal order should be" that he was "not surprised that he was invited by the African National Congress constitutional committee as a principal adviser in the Codesa days".

It was not just the South African constitution that Chaskalson helped draft, said Justice Kriegler. It was also Namibia’s constitution, where "his advocacy of human rights and the rule of law .. found important expression".

His seminal and groundbreaking work as the first head of the Constitutional Court is where many believed he made his most significant and enduring contribution to South African — not only in his judgments but also in establishing the collegial and accessible culture of the country’s highest court.

Chairman of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution Sipho Pityana said Chaskalson had always worked "to build a consensus around the complex and groundbreaking judgments that were the hallmark of the court’s early years".

Less well known perhaps is the profound impact he had on the many young lawyers he mentored as his researchers or "clerks" at the Constitutional Court.

One of them, Susannah Cowen, speaking on behalf of the Constitutional Court Clerks Alumni Association, said Chaskalson had "an extraordinary ability to touch the lives of young people".

"I believe he did because he valued all human beings in a most profound way," she said.

"Because he valued each of our contributions, and took the time to know us as individuals, he allowed us as young lawyers to see what value we have and that we each have an important role to play in our country as it shapes its democracy."

Adv Ntsebeza also praised the former chief justice for the role he played as member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and his "sensitivity to the constitutional imperative that the JSC, in selecting judges, should consider the need for the judiciary to broadly reflect South Africa’s population in terms of race and gender".

"He expressed himself clearly that it was critically important that judges must have technical ability, but made it clear that it was not enough to have 50% white and 50% black judges as that was ‘still disproportionate’, as it ‘will leave you with many (white males) and too few women’", Adv Ntsebeza said.

Mr Govender and Mr Stemmet said that just a few weeks ago, Chaskalson had stressed the importance of the independence of the judiciary and of the legal profession for our constitutional democracy.

They were referring to a speech he made a few weeks ago in Kimberley on the Legal Practice Bill. "As legal practitioners we must bear this in mind so that we continue to move forward on the path that ensures a stable and future democracy," they said.

Justice Kriegler also referred to the speech, saying Chaskalson’s "defence of the rule of law — in recent weeks challenging lawyers to speak up on the Legal Practice Bill — has been vital to constitutional democracy in South Africa".

Mr Pityana said: "The best way to mark his legacy will be for us all to recommit to the protection of human rights and to the maintenance of the rule of law in South Africa — principles to which Chaskalson devoted his life."