On 20 August 2019, the Constitutional Court held a special session in honour of Justice Edwin Cameron, upon his retirement 25 years after his appointment to the bench. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) Faculty of Law’s Professor David Bilchitz was one of a handful of speakers who delivered a tribute to Justice Cameron.
Professor Bilchitz delivered the tribute as Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC), an institution Justice Cameron played an important role in developing. Initially, a stand-alone institution with Justice Cameron as one of a number of trustees, SAIFAC became a part of the University of Johannesburg in 2011.
Professor Bilchitz paid tribute to Justice Cameron from both a personal and professional perspective. On a personal level, he spoke about the profound effects of Justice Cameron’s activism on behalf of LGBT people in enabling this minority (of which he is a part) to move from a ‘secret life in the shadows’ to being citizens with equal concern and respect. He also spoke about Justice Cameron’s courage in disclosing his HIV-positive status and so seeking to enable millions of South Africans to shed the psychological stigma of this disease. He recognized how Justice Cameron also campaigned tirelessly to ensure access to life-saving treatment for all South Africans who are HIV-positive.
Professor Bilchitz made particular mention of Justice Cameron’s concern for every individual which he said ‘is not bounded by race or gender, religion or class, or, indeed whether one holds South African citizenship or not. His compassion is so extensive that it goes beyond the human species too’. Bilchitz spoke about how Cameron has, ground-breakingly played in a role in changing the status of animals in South African law from property to beings who have an intrinsic value as individuals.
Apart from his activism and judicial brilliance, Bilchitz paid tribute to Justice Cameron’s role in building institution such as SAIFAC. SAIFAC was formed by Justice Laurie Ackermann with the vision of creating a world-class research institute to generate original research relating to its areas of focus, to engage with the work of the Constitutional Court and, hopefully, to inform it. In the next week it will host a conference with over 20 papers that will be evaluating the work of the Constitutional Court in the past two years which will be published in the Constitutional Court Review journal.
Bilchitz drew attention to Justice Cameron’s deep respect for the value of academic research in its own right and its ability to inform and guide practice. He thanked Justice Cameron for the role he has played in building SAIFAC and enabling it to move to the University of Johannesburg.
Bilchitz concluded his speech with the recognition that Justice Cameron ‘has been prepared with every fibre of his body, to help South Africa advance towards a society where the dignity, equality and freedom of all are respected’. He wished Justice Cameron well in his retirement and ‘tremendous quality of life in the years to come’.