Arthur Chaskalson, Jewish Anti-apartheid Hero, Dies at Age 81

One of South Africa's greatest legal figures and a stalwart fighter in the struggle against apartheid, Chaskalson died of cancer at age 81.

Arthur Chaskalson, one of South Africa's legal giants and an anti-apartheid hero, died earlier this month after a struggle with leukemia. He was 81.

A relentless rationalist, Chaskalson served as president of the Constitutional Court of South Africa from 1994-2001 and as chief justice of South Africa from 2001-2005. He was a major contributor to country's post-apartheid constitution. He also served on the team that defended Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial of 1963.

On May 31, 2005, shortly after he retired as chief justice, Chaskalson was praised by former President Thabo Mbeki, who called him a great son of the South African people and a giant among the architects of that nation's democracy. Mbeki thanked Chaskalson for his role as a lawyer, judge and South African in shepherding the nation into a place where all citizens belong.

Mbeki was on hand on December 3 when Chaskalson was buried at the West Park Jewish Cemetery in Johannesburg. His funeral, conducted by a Reform Jewish rabbi, was also attended by President Jacob G. Zuma, Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe, Housing Minister Tokyo Sexwale; and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Among the pall-bearers were former Chief Justice Pius Langa; Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke; Governor of the South Africa Reserve Bank Gill Marcus; Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a crucial role in helping steer the country toward its first democratic elections in April 1994; and Zwelinzima Vavi, General-Secretary of Cosatu (Congress of South Africa Trade Unions).

Although the funeral was declared a state affair by Zuma, the Chaskalson family asked that Geoff Budlender, who co-founded the Legal Resources Center with Chaskalson in 1979, deliver the only eulogy.

Two days after the funeral, on December 5, a state memorial was held at the Johannesburg City Hall.

Chaskalson came from a modest background. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, died when he was 5 years old. Despite their tight finances, his mother sent him to two elite private schools – Pridwin and Hilton – and he graduated with a law degree cum laude from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 1954.

As a student, he excelled at soccer, playing both for Wits and the combined South African universities team.

Chaskalson passed the Johannesburg Bar in 1956. In 1963, he joined the defense team for the famed Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela was given life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.

He earned the rank of senior counsel in July 1971.

In 1979, Chaskalson left what was said to have been a lucrative private practice and founded the Legal Resources Center, a non-profit organization that worked against Apartheid. He served as director until September 1993. The Center continues to pursue justice and human rights across South Africa today.

In 1975 and 1983, he was leading counsel in the famous Komani and Rikhotso cases. Those cases successfully challenged the legality of influx control legislation, which forced South Africa's black citizens to carry passes and to live in artificial rural areas called Bantustans, the so-called Bantu Urban Areas Act.

The Komani and Rikhotso cases were instrumental in crippling the then-government's ability to enforce influx control.

"Diffident and private, always embarrassed when he was made the focus of attention regarding human rights work, Chaskalson was reluctant to explain quite why he took that path," wrote Jeremy Gauntlett, chairman of the South Africa Bar Association, of his colleague.

"He led a new generation of lawyers who, through the courts, forced spaces between the flagstones of oppressive legislation. In a time of great legal creativity, he inspired many by his courage and example."

Chaskalson played a central role in the drafting and negotiations of the Interim Constitution, which established a bill of rights for the people of South Africa and served as that country's constitution from 1994 to 1997. In June 1994, he was appointed by Mandela as the first president of South Africa's new constitutional court.

From 2004-2008, he served as president of the International Commission of Jurists.

Chaskalson was occasionally criticized for acting soft on the post-Mandela African National Congress, which was accused of encroaching on judiciary independence. But a mere three weeks before his death, Chaskalson delivered a lecture to the Cape Law Society in Kimberley about the Legal Practice Bill, which the Zuma government intends to make law.

He called on the legal profession to do its "duty" by speaking out against measures that threaten the courts' independence. He will be remembered as one of South Africa's leading jurists on constitutional and human rights.

Chaskalson is survived by his wife, Dr. Lorraine Chaskalson, his sons Matthew and Jerome, and his grandchildren.

Courtesy LRC