Thandi Modise to Edwin Cameron: 'Never was so much owed by so many to so few'

Regter Edwin Cameron Foto: Argief
Regter Edwin Cameron Foto: Argief

It is an honour for me, on behalf of Parliament to say a few words to celebrate the life and service of Justice Edwin Cameron.The preamble of our Constitution is inspirational. It says "We the people… respect those who have worked hard to build and develop our country… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it… (we are) united in our diversity".

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Justice Cameron's appointment as a judge – making this event a really deliberate act of coincidence.

I am not sure whether it is another deliberate act or a mere coincidence that the Constitutional Court made this event to coincide with a remarkable and historical day of Tuesday the 20th of August, 1940. For it was this day (in 1940) that the then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made the fourth of his famous war-time speeches, containing the line ,"Never was so much owed by so many to so few".

I make reference to this phrase because I believe, honestly so, that Justice Cameron is one of those "few" who have contributed so much to this, "our so young" constitutional democracy.

Chief Justice, we can never forget the horror of the killing of Gugu Dlamini, a young woman who was stoned to death by a gang in her neighbourhood in KwaZulu-Natal. Gugu Dlamini died because she chose to reveal her HIV status on radio. The calm and deliberate public stance by Justice Cameron to challenge the negative perceptions and stigmas around HIV and Aids, to stand alone in his field to educate and lead the battle against HIV and Aids could not have come at a better time. 

That public declaration earned him our respect and admiration. The real beneficiaries of this stance were the "faceless" thousands of families affected by Aids. That declaration eased the burdens of secret pain and helped lift shame and indignity brought by the ignorance and fear. Our nation could begin to breathe!

We agreed with former president Mandela when he hailed Justice Cameron as one of South Africa's new heroes. Of course there were those who whispered, "What was he thinking, coming out like that?"

We understood what you were thinking when we started following the logic in your judgments in the various courts, we realised that Judge Cameron was, and still is, an activist judge – an advocate for freedom of expression and association.

His judgment on the case of Holomisa vs Argus Newspapers Ltd was that Holomisa was not defamed by the papers printing that he was directly involved in the infiltration into South Africa of an APLA hit squad. Newspapers could avoid liability if they showed that the decision to publish was made in a reasonable manner.

Justice Cameron also penned the Liquor Bill judgment on Provincial Legislative powers. The president had reservations on the constitutionality of the bill and therefore had referred it to the Constitutional Court under section 79.

The Liquor Bill case assisted and gave guidance to Parliament on the scope and ambit of the functional areas set out in schedule 4 and 5 of the Constitution. In this matter the court held that schedule 4 and 5 must be interpreted in the light of the model of the Constitution and the manner in which the Constitution allocates power to the different spheres of government.

From these two cases, I understood that the courts became more active in the application of rights horizontally in appropriate situations depending on the rights in question.

Ladies and gentlemen, the duty of the court is to do justice while exhibiting fairness, respect and dignity to the people who came before it. The judge is the Fulcrum on which our justice system balances, that justice system is the corner stone of our democratic nation.

Our democracy must rest on our national values of respect; dignity, Ubuntu and the rule of law. Our Constitution is the bridge that must carry us from the injustices of the past, to a society based on fundamental human rights, uniting us in our differences, uniqueness's and/ or similarities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises that judges have the same rights as other citizens – they are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly – provided that in exercising such rights, judges shall always conduct themselves in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of their office as well as the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.

I suspect that all of us gathered here today can say you have done all of this! You have contributed to the development of our democracy, you have protected our Constitution and therefore our freedom too. Indeed you have demonstrated commitment to the weak and defenceless.

Enid Bagnold said, "Judges don't age, time decorates them". I agree, stay ageless in your judgments! As Parliament we wish you well and we hope that you will be able to catch up with what you have postponed in your personal life, while on service for our country.

I wish you a well-earned and restful retirement.

- Modise is the speaker of Parliament. This is the address she gave during the special sitting of the Constitutional Court on the retirement of Justice Edwin Cameron, August 20, 2019.

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