FORMER South African Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, who has died at the age of 81, leaves behind an enduring legacy in Namibia in the form of the country’s Constitution.
Chaskalson was one of the three legal experts who helped write the draft of the Constitution which was later adopted by the Constituent Assembly in early 1990, a colleague and friend, High Court Judge Dave Smuts, recounted yesterday.
It was in that capacity as one of the lawyers that put the principles accepted by the Constituent Assembly into the words that became the Constitution that Chaskalson “played an incredibly important role in Namibia”, Smuts said.
Chaskalson was “an immense figure” who made a major contribution to South Africa, not only by being a brilliant advocate, but also through his work with the Legal Resources Centre and through his leadership of the Constitutional Court during the first years of the existence of that court, Smuts remarked.
“I think it was his humanity, humility and enormous integrity which made him such a fine person,” he said.
“For me, the finest lawyer that I’ve had the privilege to work with.”
Chaskalson died in a Johannesburg hospital on Saturday. He had recently been diagnosed with leukaemia, it was reported over the weekend.
Chaskalson served as the president of the Constitutional Court from 1994 to 2001, when he became South Africa’s chief justice. He held that post until his retirement in 2005.
Before being appointed as a judge, he was the founding director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa from 1978 to 1993.
It was while he was involved with the LRC that Chaskalson appeared as a counsel in several cases in which the implementation of apartheid laws were challenged in the South African courts.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela has commented that the LRC was a “remarkable institution (which) perhaps did more than any other in the 1970s and 1980s to challenge executive abuses, and to be a legal voice for the voiceless”.
In Namibia, Chaskalson appeared in the then South West Africa Division of the Supreme Court in 1984 as one of the legal counsel representing church leaders and relatives of people who had been detained without trial at Mariental for some six years after they had been captured by the South African Defence Force during the attack on Swapo camps at Cassinga in 1978.
As director of the LRC, Chaskalson also provided advice and guidance with the setting up of a similar public interest law practice, the Legal Assistance Centre, in Namibia in 1988.
In 1989, Chaskalson represented the LAC, then led by Smuts, in a case in which an attempt by the South African Administrator General to curtail the work of the LAC was successfully challenged.
In a statement issued on Saturday, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory said that Chaskalson and Mandela had “walked a long road together, from the Rivonia Trial through to the advent of democracy in South Africa and beyond”.
Chaskalson was a member of the defence team in the Rivonia Trial in 1963/64, in which Mandela and other leading figures in the African National Congress were accused of acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system.
That trial ended with Mandela and seven others who had been convicted escaping the death penalty and being sentenced to life imprisonment instead.