JOHANNESBURG — An openly gay judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court recently hosted a launch for his new book in the foyer of the court, a symbol-laden structure partly built with exposed brick from the apartheid-era prison that once stood on the same hilltop. At the event, another judge praised Edwin Cameron, loftily describing their workplace as a shrine to democracy but also ribbing the colleague he sees often.
“He has assured me and reassured me that he has no crush on me,” joked Dikgang Moseneke, the deputy chief justice and a former activist who was jailed for years during white racist rule. The audience laughed, and laughed more when Cameron stepped to the microphone and said: “I’m actually blushing.”
The banter captured the ideal of openness in the South African court, anchor of a constitution widely seen as one of the most progressive in the world because of its commitment to equality, operating in an inevitably imperfect society that struggles to fulfill expectations 20 years after the end of white domination. Cameron’s own story as a man who publicly stated he has the virus that causes AIDS and later joined the nation’s highest court exemplifies the possibility of South Africa, in contrast with growing intolerance toward gays in Uganda, Nigeria and some other African countries.
Many of the 11 judges on the Constitutional Court were activists in the fight against apartheid that culminated in the first all-race elections in 1994, Cameron said in an interview in his office with The Associated Press. He worked as a human rights lawyer during the tumultuous last chapter of white rule and has campaigned for gay rights.
“You sit on a court with judicial capacities and judicial constraints, but you also have known injustice yourself and grown up and worked professionally in the acute awareness of it. So that’s what makes it different,” Cameron said. He described South Africans as skeptical, outspoken and politicized, saying those qualities are the beneficial fallout of challenging apartheid for decades.
“We are not quiescent,” said 61-year-old Cameron, who joined the Constitutional Court in 2009. “Unlike Zimbabwe, unlike Swaziland, it’s our angry population that is our safeguard against authoritarianism and dictatorship. I think that’s a tremendous plus.”
South Africa often deliberates to what extent past racial injustice hurts its ability to overcome crime, corruption, poverty and other challenges even as it boasts a stable electoral system and one of Africa’s biggest economies. The debate is intensifying ahead of ceremonies later this month for the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid and elections in May.
In “Justice: A Personal Account,” Cameron traces the hardship of his early life — his father in jail, a sister killed in a road accident, time spent in a children’s home — through a top education that only whites were entitled to, his discovery of the law as a way to repair a racially torn society and his own life, as well the 1986 discovery that he was HIV positive. He fell ill a decade later, but anti-retroviral treatment restored him and today he helps AIDS charities and children’s homes and is a passionate cyclist.
Cameron’s upward journey illustrates the promise of South Africa’s constitutional law, influenced by codes in Germany, Canada, India, Namibia and elsewhere. South Africa is one of the few countries to guarantee the right to food, water, housing and other basics, though recent protests for government services indicate these are hard commitments to keep.
“The person on the public road burning tires to stop passing traffic because of service delivery protests feel they deserve more under the constitution, and they articulate it that way,” Cameron said. “There’s a fiery demand for government to improve itself, and in a paradoxical way, that is not a bad thing.”
In the book, he describes the court’s key 2002 ruling during the country’s AIDS epidemic that a reluctant government must make anti-retroviral drugs available. Cameron was part of a 2011 majority ruling that said a move to bring an elite crime-busting team under police supervision was unconstitutional because its independence would be compromised.
The judge said he was worried about “endemic, almost pervasive corruption” in South Africa, the diminishing effectiveness of some state agencies and economic inequality, even though the middle class has grown.
Cameron has an elegant manner, yet writes with blunt honesty. He describes childhood memories of urinating with his legs primly together, a habit he calls “girlish” and “exactly right for me” as his sexuality developed. In the AP interview, he said opening up has been a 30-year process, starting with his “coming out” as a gay and acknowledging, in a terrifying, liberating moment, that he was HIV positive in 1999.
He is, however, troubled by threats to homosexual rights elsewhere in Africa. Uganda and Nigeria recently passed laws strengthening criminal penalties against gay sex.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that the end of this is going to be a recognition that homosexuality is as African as it is human anywhere in the world,” Cameron said. “Whether that’s going to take another 20 years or 30 years or in my grieving moments, 40 years even, I don’t know.”
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