Magisterial, modest and in a class of his own
At noon last Saturday, in the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, the world’s greatest legal brain of recent times died.
Arthur Chaskalson hated to be singled out, always emphasised that he was part of a team. Though he believed fully in free speech, he would have got an interdict to prevent me from blowing a trumpet on his behalf.
He chose a Toyota rather than a Mercedes-Benz or BMW for his official car, and insisted on staying on in his relatively modest home rather than move to the stately residence as some officials would have preferred. Yet his honesty and modesty were part of what made him a magnificent judge.
He was simply in a class of his own. One of the perks of being on the Constitutional Court was doing a huge amount of comparative research and getting to know top judges in countries east and west, north and south.
I am not alone in thinking that none could equal Arthur for sheer clarity of legal thought, assuredness of presentation and persuasiveness of argument. He was magisterial. Everything he did just seemed right.
Why Arthur? Why South Africa? There was something in his genes, for sure. Pius Langa has it, Sandile Ngcobo, Kate O’Regan, and other of my colleagues – an ability to intuitively relate the gritty facts of life to the lofty ideals of law.
Yet there was also something specially South African that fed into the development of Arthur’s legal mind, heart and imagination. The deepest conflicts in our country have long been mediated by law. Law maintained oppression; law was used to fight against it.
Gandhi came here as a lawyer, and graduated to become a great apostle for freedom. Smuts, we are told, rode as a guerrilla against the British with a rifle in one hand and a book of international law in the other (I’m not sure how he held the reins!).
Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were active as lawyers while working night and day for the ANC.
Bram Fischer was chairman of the Johannesburg Bar Council before becoming a fulltime underground leader of the Communist Party and spending the last years of his life in prison.
These were Arthur’s colleagues and clients, people for whom justice wasn’t just an ideal, it was life. The law took on epic dimensions. And from the other side, too, in addition to Smuts, there were Hertzog, Vorster and De Klerk.
No wonder that South Africa, which gave the world concentration camps and apartheid, also gave the world its first negotiated revolution. And Arthur, the lawyer’s lawyer to a tee, was at the centre of the stormy but ultimately peaceful transformation.
Some people change their voice and manner and appearance (even their life partners), as they move onwards and upwards in life. Not so Arthur.
Whether the most sought-after young advocate at the Bar, or giving up a lucrative practice to establish the Legal Resources Centre, or working at Mandela’s behest with the constitutional committee of the ANC, or heading the technical team that elaborated the text of the interim constitution, or presiding over South Africa’s first Constitutional Court, he was always the same.
Utterly courteous, with the faintest hint of the Bohemian in his dress, a big mop of hair that slowly turned from black to grey to white, a distinctive, deliberative voice, always well organised, often the last to speak, a serious listener who loved a good debate, with a great sense of humour and unbounded curiosity, Arthur was unmistakably Arthur. Above all, he was honourable. Indeed, he brought honour to the very concept of honour.
There is only one consolation for his passing, but it is a huge one. The constitution lives in the minds of millions. The Constitutional Court lives and works in its splendid building in the heart of the prison where Gandhi and Mandela were locked up.
The hundreds of people who worked closely with Arthur and shared his ideals, live. His marvellous family live. So even posthumously, one can say: Long live Arthur Chaskalson, long live. Viva! Arthur, viva!
* Justice Albie Sachs served with Arthur Chaskalson on the Constitutional Court