Arthur Chaskalson: Key figure in South Africa after apartheid

Arthur Chaskalson was widely recognised as one of the key architects of South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, and also as its most renowned jurist. He burst into prominence as a junior barrister on the Rivonia Treason Trial defence team in 1963, building a lifelong friendship with Nelson Mandela and the other trialists, who were all sentenced to life imprisonment rather than death by hanging.

By then, he had already made his mark as a bright young thing in the legal world. He graduated Cum Laude with degrees in commerce and law from Wits University in 1954 before being admitted to the Bar two years later. He took Silk in 1971, but having grown up in a Jewish family with a strong sense of social justice, the career path of the commercial lawyer never excited him. Rather, his energies went into opposing the government's apartheid laws and defending its opponents at a time when public opposition was dormant.

Chaskalson was never one of those hectoring, caustic, showman barristers epitomised in television dramas. Instead, his reputation was as a deep thinker, and, when required, an incisive cross-examiner. Those who knew him well talked about both his brilliant intellect and his apparent lack of ego.

In 1978 he took a decision that seemed to go against the careerist grain by becoming the first director of the non-profit Legal Resources Centre, which was dedicated to public and human rights law, while also serving as a board member of the legal faculty of his alma mater. The National Party government regarded him as an enemy, but his position and international reputation (which included membership of the New York Bar Association) meant they could not hit him directly, although they would never appoint him to the bench.

However, he was already preparing for his future role, helping the Namibian Constituent Assembly draft its new constitution. And when the African National Congress was unbanned in 1990, Chaskalson became a member of its constitutional committee, and went on to serve on the technical committee at the Codesa negotiations forum, playing a central role in drafting the country's new constitution. An interesting side note is that he had joined the banned South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, but was never active in the underground thereafter. Still when he first arrived at Codesa, it was as a Communist Party delegate.

It came as no surprise when his friend Mandela appointed him as the president of the country's new constitutional court, whose first task was the certification of the new constitution. While this was happening, he was robbed in his own home.

"He told us that the solution to a difficult constitutional problem came to him when he was down on his knees with a gun pointing to his head," fellow jurist Dr Albie Sachs recalled. "He laughed about it, but it showed that even in such a moment of peril, his brain never stopped working. He really had a magnificent legal mind – one of the finest of the 20th century – and he put the law and the constitution before anything else."

Several of his judgments, including his first, on capital punishment, have been widely cited internationally, but Chaskalson also developed a reputation for his collegiate approach on this new, non-racial constitutional court. "I loved working with him," said Sachs. "He got on with everyone because he was very fair, very wise, a wonderful listener and he was modest in his style. When offered a BMW, he turned it down and took a Toyota instead."

Another Constitutional Court judge, Edwin Cameron, spoke of Chaskalson's compassion. "I was living secretly with HIV and I'd been nominated to become a judge. Arthur showed that personally supportive, loving side of him. He insisted I allow my nomination to go forward, and later, also with his personal encouragement, I made a public statement."

In 2001 Chaskalson's title was changed to that of Chief Justice of South Africa, a role he held until 2005. In his last address from the bench he stressed the need for separation of powers between the judiciary and other branches of government. "Experience shows that where there is absolute power, corruption and abuse of power are more likely ... It is important for our democracy that the delicate balance be kept intact."

He watched from retirement as his government fiddled with that balance – attempting to introduce restrictions on press freedom and to appoint compliant judges. But by then, he had moved on, and was well-established as an international jurist, having been appointed to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration and later as judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Chaskalson died of leukaemia.

Arthur Chaskalson, jurist, born Johannesburg, South Africa 24 November 1931; married Lorraine (two sons); died Johannesburg 1 December 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015