Defend Truth


As Edwin Cameron retires, let us reflect on his enormous contribution to justice in South Africa


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Edwin Cameron looms large over the legal history of South African access to land, the medical health environment and sexual-orientation justice issues. The shadows he cast in his forceful defence of the rule of law go beyond the borders of South Africa.

Justice Edwin Cameron evidently made a seamless transition from being a poacher of ways to fight for the promotion of rights and the eradication of injustices to a gamekeeper of a good life for all.

His not unusual degree of public interest in gender and sexual orientation issues, health rights and healthcare issues is not peripatetic. The man looms large over the trajectory of the history of South African access to land, the medical health environment and sexual-orientation justice issues, to name a few. The shadows he cast in his forceful defence of the rule of law go beyond the borders of South Africa.

As Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in his valedictory for Justice Cameron as he steps down from the bench of one of the most revered courts in the world:

Have you thought of Edwin Cameron. A brave and bold man. When HIV and Aids was, or attracted stigma, he stood up and declared openly: ‘I am HIV-positive’. He knew the attitude of South Africans at the time because nobody had stepped out and prepared them that this is a condition like any other that requires medical attention. He could afford the antiretrovirals and, therefore, like many of us he could have chosen to mind his own business and care less about others. But not Edwin Cameron. He is not that type. He is never the kind that says ‘as long as I have my needs met I am not going to rock the boat’… His love for the multitudes of South Africans and many across Africa and beyond could not allow him to shut up. So for the sake of those suffering masses he never only spoke but he acted. He moved around and mobilised support… Thanks to him… the lives of many in South Africa, the many Africans, the lives of many people across the globe have been saved.”

Justice Mogoeng’s words of gratitude to Justice Cameron need no further explanation.

One hopes that with his retirement, Justice Cameron does not draw a curtain on his judicial career, his healthcare rights and gender and sexuality activism.

I hope that he now has much time, and freedom from the strictures of the Constitutional Court’s code of conduct, to enter the next step of his career. The man is and has always has been in a league of his own. I may be somewhat unstinting in my praise of Justice Cameron because of his heroism and undying commitment to the fight for access to medicine and gender and sexual-orientation parity.

As a young academic – and still today as a senior academic in the South African legal academy – I found it a compensating advantage to read the judgments delivered by Justice Cameron and to know about the public interest advocacy into which he thrust himself. I have always been much taken with his famous rulings in 2000 and 2002 relating to HIV/Aids. The 2000 ruling overruled discrimination on the grounds of being HIV-positive, and the 2002 ruling obligated the South African government to provide free antiretroviral treatment to all pregnant HIV-positive women.

These two judgments not only engendered much academic discussion and provided rich information for many legal scholars to launch themselves as experts and best jurists, the judgments also dealt with a topic that had created hostilities and gifted the country the Thabo Mbeki HIV/Aids denialism and the beetroot healthcare advocacy.

We need to celebrate the fruitful 25 years of a courageous person who is also semantically sensitive. He believed, for example, that:

Gay rights is a misnomer, it would be like speaking of ‘black rights’ or ‘Venda rights’ for the Bavenda. I think the more precise concept is non-discrimination in the case of gays and lesbians”.

In this, he reminded us that our Constitution was constructed on the promise of non-discrimination and that our construction of the rights in the Bill of Rights should not lead to micro-discrimination and micro-aggressions.

That’s Justice Edwin Cameron for you. DM


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