Written by Sive Mjindi
One of the most significant, current LGBTQIA+ icons in South Africa, Former Justice Edwin Cameron has significantly improved our nation in many ways. Cameron, who had been a Justice of the nation’s highest court since 1st January 2009, retired after nearly four decades in the legal profession – two of which he spent as a senior counsel, and a protracted career that began with his appointment as an acting judge of the High Court by the time Nelson Mandela took office in August 1994. We honour Justice Edwin Cameron’s memory today as a Queer Warrior, and for the achievements he fulfilled that have had a significant impact on the LGBTQIA+ community and legal system of South Africa.
Former Justice Cameron has been upfront about his sexual orientation since the early 1980s, setting new ground as the first senior government figure to “come out of the closet” in Africa. He is renowned for coordinating the gay and lesbian movement’s comments to our Constitution’s drafters, which helped secure the inclusion of an unambiguous ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the South African Constitution. Throughout his professional life, Cameron has openly discussed his gay identity and fought for an end to stigma, prejudice, and the criminalization of homosexuality in the country.
He has often emphasized the value of queer people’s visibility as a tool for bringing about change in Africa. Cameron even published a memoir in 2005 called Witness To AIDS, which Former President Nelson Mandela praised as “someone who seeks a better life for all,” and dubbed “a huge contribution by a courageous South African towards that search for a better life for all.” Many have therefore frequently acknowledged him as “a man of stature”, “a legal giant” and “a brilliant jurist”; which isn’t surprising considering how much Cameron’s contributions have positively benefitted queer South Africans.
Cameron had been working on projects relating to the HIV/AIDS scourge in South Africa long before he revealed he was HIV positive in 1999, and even before or coming out. In the middle of the 1980s, Cameron co-founded the AIDS Consortium, the AIDS Law Project, and co-wrote the Charter of Rights on AIDS and HIV while still working as a human rights attorney at the Witwatersrand University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies.
Because he was the only senior South African official to publicly disclose that he has HIV, Cameron’s AIDS activism in the 1990s was motivated by how directly the issue touched him. Cameron was able to pay for the antiviral drug that saved his life after developing the illness in 1985, while working with many people with fewer means who could not afford to buy the drugs. This motivated him to disclose publicly that he was also HIV-positive. Justice Cameron subsequently played a key role in bringing the rights of those who have contracted HIV to the attention of the general public and the legal system.