SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
SACP deputy secretary-general Jeremy Cronin. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

EIGHT former Constitutional Court justices and Justice Zak Yacoob on Wednesday entered into the controversy over whether former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson, who died earlier this month, was ever a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Soon after his death, the SACP, in its tribute, claimed him, saying it was "a lesser-known fact" that Chaskalson was a member of the underground SACP in the 1960s and represented the SACP at the Codesa negotiations in the early 1990s. The claim was later retracted but had already prompted a furious debate — with renowned human rights lawyers including Geoff Budlender SC and George Bizos SC disputing the idea.

On Wednesday, Justices Yacoob, Pius Langa, Laurie Ackermann, Richard Goldstone, Johann Kriegler, Yvonne Mokgoro, Kate O’Regan and Albie Sachs all said they were "dismayed" that Chaskalson’s "integrity and candour" should be in question at this time.

They said they were the "surviving judges" of the Constitutional Court who sat in the famous South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) case, in which former rugby administrator Louis Luyt asked for the recusal of several justices, including Chaskalson, because of alleged ties to the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners.

Chaskalson himself said in a letter to Sarfu’s attorney that, apart from membership of the Liberal Party during the 1950s, he had never been a member of any political party.

The court’s judgment then confirmed that he had never been a member of the ANC or related organisations. "The posthumous assertion of this untruth damages not only Justice Chaskalson’s peerless record of candour and integrity, but also the institution of the court," said the justices.

On Wednesday, SACP deputy secretary-general Jeremy Cronin said the party "fully accepts" that Chaskalson was not a member. He said the misunderstanding came about because of "what comrades like (former SACP secretary-general ) Joe Slovo had said in the early 1990s", that Chaskalson was a great man and the SACP had, in the 1960s, "worked very closely" with him.

However, Chaskalson did initially come into the Codesa negotiations as part of the SACP’s delegation, though he was never a card-carrying member, he said.