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South Africa mourns the death of Former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson

The first Constitutional Court President of democratic South Africa and former Chief Justice, Arthur Chaskalson passed away on Saturday 1 December 2012 at age 81 at the Milpark Hospital after an extended battle with leukemia.

Former president Nelson Mandela appointed Arthur Chaskalson in 1994, seven years later, Arthur Chaskalson became South Africa’s Chief Justice. He headed the country’s judiciary for four years until 2005.

Chaskalson’s successor, Pius Langa, describes Arthur Chaskalson as one of the greatest jurists he’d ever known. Langa says his death leaves a huge gap among South Africans who stand for democracy, justice and the independence of the judiciary.  “I know very few people who worked as hard as he did, even while he occupied a leadership position.  Second thing, his gentleness, humaneness.  He was a very constant friend.  Someone you could always depend on.  He gave advice to everybody who sought it.”

Arthur Chaskalson was part of several defence teams in high-profile political trials under apartheid.  They included the Rivonia trial of the early 1960s, in which former president Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for their political beliefs.

Former Rivonia trialist, Dennis Goldberg, says Arthur Chaskalson played an important role in saving their lives, even though he was a junior lawyer at the time.  “You know, I knew him as a lawyer in that trial and afterwards as a friend.  Can I say a very upright person.  A person with a very clear integrity and seriousness of purpose, a brilliant mind!”

The spokesperson of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Sello Hatang, briefly sketches the path that Madiba and Arthur Chaskalson travelled together.  “Advocate Chaskalson and our founder, Mr Mandela, walked a long road together from the Rivonia Trial through to the advent of democracy in South Africa and beyond.  Mr Mandela appointed him in 1994 as the first president of the constitutional court.”

At the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s, Arthur Chaskalson was part of the Communist Party delegation.  He had joined the banned SACP about three decades earlier. The old National Party’s chief constitutional negotiator, Roelf Meyer, got to know Chaskalson very well when they were drafting the country’s interim constitution.  “The hours and days that we spent together at the World Trade Centre, as it was then, when we were busy with the CODESA negotiations.  I will recall very, very strongly my memories of him, the way he served us and the country at that time.”

In 1978, Arthur Chaskalson gave up his lucrative practice to establish the Legal Resource Centre.  He wanted to help the country’s weak and underprivileged.  Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron offers more about Arthur Chaskalson, the person.   “I experienced that deeply personal side of Arthur Chaskalson when I went to speak to him in 1994 about the fact that I was living with HIV.  I was still living secretly with HIV, i hadn’t spoken about it publicly and I had been nominated to become a judge under the new constitution. Arthur was enormously distressed.  He showed that personal supportive, loving side of him. He insisted that I should allow my nomination to go forward.  And of course some years later, also with his personal encouragement, I made a public statement.”

Speaking from the Constitutional Court bench for the last time in mid-2005, Aruthur Chaskalson said he’d had a long and fullfilling career in the law and that  the Constitution was his guide.  “One of the principles of constitutionalism is the separation of powers.  This is regarded as being essential to prevent power from accumulating in one centre.  Experience shows that where there is absolute power, corruption and abuse of power are more likely to occur than when there are different centers of power.  There is a delicate balance between the judiciary and other branches of government.  It is important for our democracy that the delicate balance be kept in tact and that the different roles of the legislature, the executive an the judiciary be respected.”

Arthur Chaskalson dies on 1 December 2012 at age 81 after an extended battle with Leukemia.

Everyone, who knew Arthur Chaskalson as a lawyer, judge, colleague and friend, has wished his wife, Lorraine, their two sons and grandchildren strength during their mourning.