Former Constitutional Court justice Edwin Cameron, 68, does not shy away when asked about the state of South Africa.
Instead, the renowned LGBTI+ activist and anti-apartheid lawyer pauses and takes a bite of his marmite and avo toast before answering while staring directly into my eyes.
“I think young people, people like yourself, who were born after democracy because you were born in 95, I think they should feel a sense not just of disappointment but of rage,” a blue-eyed Cameron said on the patio of his ground floor apartment in upmarket Hyde Park, Johannesburg.
“Because you have been failed by our generation, my generation. And by me, I point my finger at myself as well. More things could have been done, whether on the bench or outside the bench, but we have failed your generation.”
Cameron, wearing a casual blue golf shirt and shorts (the scheduled interview slipped his mind, and he was packing when I arrived at the apartment), appears relaxed as he leans back into a wooden chair.
“And it’s time for a generational change: we looted, we were incompetent, we were slothful, we were idle, we were evasive. We didn’t apply ourselves to the constitutional injunctions to create a transformed society and the failing institutions; the formation of ultra elites is my generations fault.”
As the birds chirp in the apartment building’s lush green gardens; and the skies clear from thunderstorms earlier in the day, he added:So, I think your generation should feel a great deal of rage with us. And I’m including myself. I’m not exempt from criticism.
I am quick to ask whether Cameron – who once defended anti-apartheid activists in court, and penned some of the most progressive judgments in the country – did not feel a sense of disappointment himself seeing his life’s work being stripped away.
He shakes his head, saying: “I don’t think that someone in my position can have the luxury of feeling disappointed because there’s still work to be done.
“And I think it depends how you see our present state: I think our present status is precarious, but not hopeless. I think there’s too much left to fight for. And we must fight against the incompetence, the sloth, and the corruption.”
These days Cameron, who retired from the Constitutional Court in 2019, spends his days occupied as the chancellor of Stellenbosch University – his alma mater – and as an inspecting judge of correctional services where he has been a fierce advocate for prison reform.
In November, the Presidency awarded him the Order of the Baobab (gold) for his contribution to the judicial system and for his “tireless campaigning against the stigma of HIV and Aids, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual [LGBTQIA+] communities”.slide 1 of 1Edwin Cameron on his patio outside his apartment (James de Villiers, News24)
Cameron – who has been living with his partner, Nhlanhla Mnisi, for the past six and a half years – said the past few weeks have been a reflective time since receiving the award.
“It’s been 24 years since I started antiretroviral therapy [after being diagnosed with HIV]. And it is 40 years since Aids was officially noted by the world’s public health authorities.”
He softens his tone somewhat, choosing his words carefully.
In June 1981, the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first identified Aids among men who were having sex with other men, and four years later, Cameron was diagnosed with the disease.
He takes a long breath, clasping his hands together, before saying:I think I’m very lucky to have been given that chance, for two reasons. As a gay man, in the 80s, I escaped capture and prosecution and then I got HIV, and I escaped death.
“So, I’m sitting here in a beautiful, stunningly beautiful, lovely garden. I’m very grateful.”
Asked where his sense of humility comes from, Cameron smiles softly.
“It was four things: it was poverty. Growing up very poor, spending nearly five years in a children’s home. It was discovering that I was gay in an extremely gay hostile world, at the onset of adolescence. Then, having wrestled for 16 years to suppress my gayness having come out, I then get infected with HIV. The terrible experience of shame and self-contamination and self-blame people with HIV still feel.
“So it’s poverty, queerness, stigma and whiteness: knowing that apartheid was made for poor kids like me to go from a children’s home to Pretoria Boys High, to Stellenbosch to Oxford – that path was paved by apartheid.”Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron during his send-off ceremony on 20 August 2019 in Johannesburg.
Cameron practised at the Johannesburg Bar from 1983 to 1994, during which he played a key role as an LGBTI+ activist, among others, speaking at the country’s first pride march in 1990 and helping to include sexuality protections in the Constitution.
He giggles:I’ve been speaking about vaginal fluids, penile-vaginal intercourse, submissive, receptive anal ejaculate. I’ve been speaking about these things for 30 years as an Aids campaigner.
State of South Africa’s judiciary
Speaking about the state of the South African judiciary – which has recently come under fire for being biased in its rulings – Cameron frowns and said, aside from some vrot kolle (rotten spots) on the bench, in its entirety, it is hardworking and committed to the Constitution.
“But that it’s underperforming, I think, is correct. There are too many delays [and] the delays in the Constitutional Court are increasing. So, there’s obviously cause for concern; there’s obviously cause for betterment and improvement.”
Cameron, taking another bite of his toast and a sip of his coffee, said the four shortlisted candidates to become the country’s new chief justice all presented the administrative capabilities to “reorganise and remotivate” the judiciary.
But, he added, there was a crisis of governance in South Africa overall, which made people sceptical.
“But I think there’s a deeper thing in that there’s a more general questioning of institutions of governance throughout the world, whether we are in the UK or in America, or Australasia.
“And that’s happening here too. When I became a judge, a judge was still revered. But no, I’m not sorry that they are no longer revered. You’ve got to work to establish your integrity, work to establish your authority, work to establish your stature; it doesn’t come free with a job.”
Asked about the mistakes he has made in his life, Cameron stares at the ground, and rubs the crumbs off his legs, before saying his biggest personal mistake was being too terrified of entering into a relationship.
“Nhlanhla’s made an enormous difference in my life,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.
Professionally, Cameron said, he was wrong in the judgment where the Constitutional Court dismissed Renate Barnard’s challenge against the police for failing to promote her on racial grounds.
Another possibly erroneous judgment, he added, was around Le Roux and Others vs Dey, where schoolboys had generated a computer image of the headmaster and deputy headmaster’ faces on two men fondling each other in a sauna.
As his long-haired cat walks to the edge of the patio, before lying on the ground, I ask how he is able to admit to his wrongs in a world where it is often seen as a sign of weakness.
Cameron, smiling sheepishly and shaking his head slowly, said it was because he thought he might be wrong all the time.
“All the time. I think I might be wrong on vaccinations on, on Aids stigma, on education policy, etc. And I think all the time: ‘How do we know what is right; what should be done?’
“We only know through debate and through science, which is basically trial and error.”
Furthermore, he added, frowning, he was terrified of the consequences that came with pride.
“I’ve had throughout my career as a gay man, as a lawyer, I’ve had the imminent sense of peril. That, that if you’re filled with pride, and with hubris, and with self-satisfaction, it’s a terrible danger of falling.”
As the interview draws to a close, Cameron – growing visibly anxious about a virtual meeting he is due to attend in the next few minutes – said he was looking forward in the next few years to continuing his work to improve prisons and to interact with more young people through his job as University of Stellenbosch chancellor.
Because, he said sternly, nothing in South Africa was irreparable.
“There is no corrupt state in the world that cannot be cleansed of corruption with sufficient leadership with a practical plan, and with determined implementation.
“So to me, the important thing is to realise our own agency, as individuals, as activists, as citizens, and as leaders, there is a particular responsibility.”
Clearing his throat, he added:There’s nothing that we cannot fix in South Africa. So it’s not a pie-in-the-sky attitude. It’s a simple question of pragmatic application with the right leadership with competent people and feasible action plans.