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Johannesburg - Former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, hailed as one of the architects of South Africa’s democracy has died aged 81.
Chaskalson, president of the Constitutional Court from 1994 to 2001 before his title changed to Chief Justice – a position he held until his retirement in 2005 – died at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg on Saturday, reportedly after being diagnosed with leukaemia.
Described by former president Thabo Mbeki as a “giant among the architects of our democracy”, Chaskalson is perhaps best known for being part of Nelson Mandela’s defence team in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, which saw Mandela and other ANC leaders sentenced to life.
Chaskalson, a Wits University graduate, later left his practice to become a human rights lawyer and helped establish the Legal Resources Centre, where he served as director from 1978 to 1993, leading legal teams to challenge apartheid laws.
Chaskalson was also a key adviser on the adoption of the Interim Constitution of South Africa in 1993.
In December 2002 he received the award of Supreme Counsellor of the Baobab (gold), a national honour, for his service to the nation in constitutionalism, human rights and democracy.
He recently served as the president of the International Commission of Jurists.
Paying tribute to him on Saturday, President Jacob Zuma said Chaskalson played a courageous role in the fight against apartheid.
“As the first president of our Constitutional Court he leaves a special imprint on the building of a united, non-racial, non-sexist constitutional democracy.
“On behalf of all South Africans we reach out to his wife and family as we salute a life inseparable from South Africa’s march to freedom,” Zuma said.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory said in a statement paying tribute to Chaskalson that he and Mandela had walked a long road together, from the Rivonia Trial through to the advent of democracy and beyond.
“As Mr Mandela said in 1995: ‘They put tremendous pressure on him by using the argument that there was no other advocate in the country who could say that we had done nothing more than what his people the Afrikaners had done in 1914, and that despite the loss of life in that rebellion, there were no death sentences; that if people were to die there would never be reconciliation between black and white in South Africa’,” the centre said.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng defined Chaskalson as “a man of immense integrity renowned the world over as a great leader and champion of human rights.
“He and his team etched their names indelibly in the annals of our history by defending former president Nelson Mandela and his comrades; protecting them against the death penalty at the Rivonia Trial.
Young Communist League (YCL) national secretary Buti Manamela described Chaskalson as “a beacon of the human rights struggle and a free democratic South Africa”.
Chaskalson is survived by his wife, Lorraine, and sons Matthew, 49, and Jerome, 45.