Obituary: Professor Etienne Mureinik

South Africa has lost a brave human rights activist, academic and jurist in the death, apparently by suicide, of Etienne Mureinik, former dean of the faculty of law at the University of the Witwatersrand and a member of the Judicial Services Commission.

His death is a watershed event for the mainly English-speaking white liberal establishment in South Africa, suggesting severe strains in its relation with the aspiring black middle class.

Mureinik was 42 when he fell from the 23rd storey of a hotel in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, not far from the university, on Wednesday 10 July. He had had a brilliant career at the university, joining the faculty of law in 1977 and becoming professor in 1987 at the age of 32. He was dean of faculty from 1991 to 1993.

He helped draft the Bill of Rights for the new constitution and was constitutional adviser to the Democratic Party.

As well as being a personal tragedy, Mureinik's death has wide significance because of his stance as a leading human rights lawyer at the junction of academic life and the legal system in South Africa. During the transition to the new political conditions in the country, he saw it as his moral duty to test the credentials of new appointees to the judicial system and to the highest offices in his university.

He took a highly exposed stand, at a time of acute tension in the universities. In a society in which wealth and destitution are so sharply and so visibly divided, and in which a degree can mean the difference between an income and no income, there has been powerful pressure on campus from black students for a relaxation of conditions for degree passes.

With South Africa's entrenched divisions of wealth and poverty, and their convergence along the line of race, white students enter university with a massive advantage in terms of "cultural capital", to adapt Bourdieu's phrase - not least because they study through English or Afrikaans as their first language, while black students at a university such as Wits, the victims of Bantu education under the old regime, study mainly through English as a second language.

On many campuses, political consciousness of relative inherited disability has led many black students to adopt the demand: "Pass one, pass all." Widespread agitation for the abolition of exams or at least for a relaxation of qualifying standards played a major part in the closure of the University of Natal at Durban, Westville, last month, following more than a year of conflict and fear on the campus. Student demagogy was taken up at junior lecturer level.

To some degree, the universities have inherited the ethos of the "lost generation" of the 1984-86 township revolt, when agitation around the slogan "Liberation before education" led to the closure of black schools for a very long time.

Etienne Mureinik was at the centre of this conflict in the universities, as one of the most prominent academics to take a stand. Possible downgrading of South African degrees is already an issue internationally. Mureinik took up the matter as his own affair.

In 1994 he was prominent in questioning the former ANC activist Professor Albie Sachs in relation to Sachs's appointment to the Constitutional Court. A political exile for over 20 years, Sachs was very nearly killed in 1988 in an attempt on his life by South African Military Intelligence in Mozambique, where he was Professor of Law at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo.

Returning to South Africa in May 1990 after the release of Nelson Mandela, Sachs admitted at a mass meeting at the University of Cape Town that he had previous knowledge of human rights abuses in ANC camps in exile, conceding that the ANC had "mistreated" some of its own members. This was later confirmed in a number of inquiries, including one by Amnesty International.

It emerged in August 1993 that Sachs had been a commissioner in an ANC inquiry early in 1990 into the death in ANC custody of one of its senior guerrilla commanders. No reference to these matters however appeared in Sachs's book Protecting Human Rights in a New South Africa (1990).

Mureinik's intensive questioning of Sachs, on a matter central to the judicial process, was directed towards this complex issue of authoritarian practice in exile. His concern was that post-apartheid South Africa be a law-governed society.

Inevitably, his questioning of one of the most celebrated legal figures in the struggle against racism rendered him liable to the accusation - a serious misrepresentation - of being a defender of white privilege.

This was compounded by his participation in a protest by 13 senior liberal and left-wing academics in the "Makgoba affair" at the University of the Witwatersrand. This related to the appointment of Professor William Malegapuru Makgoba, an immunologist, as the first black Deputy Vice-Chancellor. There was sharp conflict at the university when the academics queried Makgoba's qualifications, followed by counter-charges in which he accused them of racism and personal corruption.

An inquiry by an international committee exonerated the 13 academics, leading to Makgoba's resignation as Deputy Vice-Chancellor to take up an appointment as secretary to the Society for the Advancement of Science.

In an emotive article in December last year, Mureinik wrote that the word "liberal" - a term of abuse in the period of apartheid - had once again become a "stigma label", but now instead of equating with Communist it meant "so far to the right as to be almost racist".

"Naked, uncritical racial solidarity" among black journalists in the Makgoba affair, and even extending to the Minister of Education, Sibusiso Bhengu, he wrote, could "destroy all hope" of equal accountability.

"The question now is not the future of the 13 'monkeys' whom Makgoba has promised to 'tame' . . . The question now is whether South Africans want quality universities - universities in which transformation means quality teaching and research for the benefit of all our communities, not crude ethnic cleansing."

In the context of the powerful demand for black advancement in the professions, and in his determination to secure legal and academic standards to international levels, Mureinik became a much-abused and very lonely person. Colleagues have described him as having been depressed for several months before his death.

A colleague and friend, Professor Martin Brassey, described him as a person with a "really magnificent mind" and a "passionate commitment to justice". Other leading figures in the academic and legal professions spoke similarly. According to Brassey, "irrational attacks" on Mureinik had taken their toll: "The world just overwhelmed him."

Etienne Mureinik, jurist: born 1954; Professor of Law, University of the Witwatersrand, 1987-96, Dean, Faculty of Law 1991-93; married; died Johannesburg 10 July 1996.

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