Arthur Chaskalson, a truly great man, died yesterday, December 1, 2012, in Johannesburg. The list of his achievements is almost unbelievable: Fifty years ago as a young advocate (that is, a courtroom lawyer) he helped represent Nelson Mandela in the case in which Mandela was sentenced to life in prison – a victory, since the only other alternative was death, and a victory that meant a great deal to South Africa’s future. In 1979, along with the distinguished lawyer Felicia Kentridge, he founded the Legal Resources Centre, which distilled the lessons of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s practice in the United States to become South Africa’s leading public interest law organization – and to win cases challenging apartheid, in apartheid South Africa’s courts. Then he took up the task of representing the African National Congress as one of its principal negotiators in the drafting of South Africa’s first post-apartheid constitution. That constitution created South Africa’s Constitutional Court, the first court in South Africa with authority to enforce a constitution that genuinely protected human rights. Arthur became the Constitutional Court’s first President and then, as this Court’s centrality to South Africa’s legal system became evident, he became Chief Justice of South Africa. And after he retired as Chief Justice, he served as President of the International Commission of Jurists, and in that position he led the ICJ’s incisive examination of the US “war against terror” and its uneasy relationship to law and human rights.
I had the great good fortune to be one of Arthur’s friends for the past 25 years. Our friendship began when we taught a course on “Legal Responses to Apartheid” together at Columbia Law School in 1987. Arthur’s own scholarly approach to South Africa’s law – he was a passionate opponent of apartheid who achieved results in part by being a dispassionate scholar of the law as well – helped me to realize that if I was going to talk about South African law I had to study it as hard as any other body of law, because South African law was easy to denounce, but not so easy to understand. Then he invited me out to South Africa, and I went, in the summer of 1988, and spent three weeks, mostly staying at the Chaskalsons’ home and meeting anti-apartheid lawyers whose work I admired immensely. Those experiences (and other wonderful opportunities I had to teach with and get to know South Africans opposed to apartheid) shaped my professional career, setting me on a course of research and writing about South Africa that remains a central part of what I do, and connecting me to people I’ve remained friends with ever since.
I remember Arthur for the profound impact he had on my professional life, and of course for the extraordinary series of achievements of his own career – enough for several successful lifetimes! But like many others, I also remember him for his humanity. He and his wife Lorraine, also a dear friend of mine, opened their house to their friends. I remember discussing the wellbeing of the many cats living in their backyard, the impolite meanings South Africans and Americans gave to certain Yiddish words, and the important question of how much to wash dishes before putting them in the dishwasher (I believe he and I both belonged to the “a lot” school). I also remember the phone service going dead, presumably in an effort by the apartheid police to prevent Arthur from planning legal strategy, during my first stay in their home. Arthur stayed the course despite that kind of pressure – and the last time we visited in South Africa, he took my wife Teresa, my son Dave and me to the Constitutional Court, and Dave sat next to him in the chairs the justices of that Court use to hear the issues that arise under a democratic constitution.
Flags will be at half-mast in South Africa all this week in remembrance of Arthur Chaskalson. He will be very much missed there, and here.