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Remembering a Leader of Legal Justice in South Africa

Justice Arthur Chaskalson founded South Africa's Legal Resources Centre, fought apartheid, and helped write the new South African Constitution. Photo:LRC

The cause of social justice in Africa lost one of its giants this month with the death of Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson.  Born and educated in South Africa, Chaskalson, 81, fought for the rights of black South Africans through the courts during apartheid. He was a part of the legal defense team that successfully defended Nelson Mandela and nine other anti-apartheid activists from the death penalty at the Rivonia trial of 1963-64.

Chaskalson left a lucrative law practice in 1979 to found the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), South Africa’s first public-interest law firm, where he championed the legal rights of the most marginalized people in South Africa. The LRC is supported by Aid for Africa member Southern Africa Legal Services Foundation.  Chaskalson and the lawyers at the LRC challenged the most repressive apartheid laws using existing South African statutes. Following the end of apartheid, Chaskalson helped write the new South African Constitution, which protects human rights and equality. Chaskalson then went on to become the first presiding judge of the Constitutional Court and then Chief Justice. The Court continues to serve as a check on the power of the South African Parliament.

 Today the LRC continues to use the Constitution and the law as instruments of justice. Its 65 lawyers and staff provide free legal counsel to marginalized people, such as the poor, homeless, and landless, in order to promote and protect equality. The LRC’s focus has expanded to issues like access to social services and environmental injustice, women’s rights, protection of refugees, and other legal barriers faced by the poor.

 The Southern Africa Legal Services Foundation, which was founded to protect LRC lawyers and staff during the dangerous days of the apartheid regime, today supports the work of the LRC in developing South Africa’s young democracy and educating about the LRC in the United States.