It is with great sadness to learn of the passing-on of South Africa's legal legend, Justice Arthur Chaskalson, following a short illness, earlier today, 1 December 2012.
Former Chief Justice Chaskalson was the inaugural President of the Constitutional Court and went on to succeed the late Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed as the Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa 2001.
His appointment to the office of the Chief Justice was by operation of the law, which was accomplished through a constitutional amendment which merged the office of the President of the Constitutional Court and that of the Office of the Chief Justice. This amendment became of necessity in order to equate the supreme status of the office of the Chief Justice to that of the highest court in the land, and Chief Justice Chaskalson became the first to hold the esteemed new office.
Justice Chaskalson was born on in Johannesburg on 24 November 1931 and went to graduate from the University of Witwatersrand with B Com (1952) and LLB Cum Laude in 1954. He started his legal career at the height of struggle against apartheid, and together with Adv Braam Fischer and George Bizos sacrificed lucrative legal practices as they could easily have opted to reap the benefit and privileges of being White lawyers at the time.
They instead chose to use their legal training as a tool to defend the defenceless Africans against the tyranny of the Government of the day. It was therefore not a coincidence that Justice Chaskalson, together with his above named compatriots, became part of the legal team that represented President Nelson Mandela and his co-accused at the historic Rivonia trial.
Justice Chaskalson was one of the founders of the Legal Resources Centre, a non-profit organisation that represented many freedom fighters during the struggle, and served as its first Director from 1978 to 1993. During the Multi-Party Negotiations he was a member of the technical committee on constitutional matters, and was leading advisor during the drafting of the Bill of Rights which was enshrined in the Interim Constitution of South Africa of 1993.
As the inaugural President of the Constitutional Court following its establishment in 1994, led the court's proceedings that culminated in the unprecedented certification of our Constitution by the Court in 1995. As the first amongst equals, Chief Justice Chaskalson became the leading architect of our constitutional jurisprudence that changed our legal landscape.
He led the Constitutional Court to many landmark decisions, amongst them the Makwanyane judgment which declared the death sentence unconstitutional and the SARFU case in which President Mandela became the first sitting President to appear before a Court, thereby reaffirmed the importance and stature of our courts is our constitutional democracy.
He had delivered many trend-setting and guiding speeches which Government always admired and took counsel from in the course of drafting its policies and legislation. His address to the Cape Law Society recently (on 9 November 2012), which was probably his last public address before he succumbed to illness, will go a long way in shaping the Legal Practice Bill currently before Parliament.
South Africa has lost a profound jurist, a scholar and a lawyer of impeccable intellect. At the same time that we mourn his passing, it is befitting that we all celebrate his titanic legacy, which many had benefitted from
On behalf of the Department, the Government and the entire Justice family I would like to offer our profound condolences to his wife Dr Lorraine Chaskalson and sons Matthew and Jerome and his grandchildren.
May his soul rest in peace.
Issued by: Department of Justice and Constitutional Development
1 Dec 2012