Thursday, February 15, 2018

Happy Birthday to South African Judge, LGBTQ Activist Edwin Cameron

Photo from The Guardian
Edwin Cameron was born today, February 15, in 1953. He is  a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa and well known for his HIV/AIDS and gay-rights activism. He was hailed by Nelson Mandela as "one of South Africa's new heroes."

Cameron was born in Pretoria. His father was imprisoned for car theft and his mother did not have the means to support him. He therefore spent much of his childhood in an orphanage in Queenstown. 

Cameron won a scholarship to attend Pretoria Boys’ High School, one of South Africa's best state schools, and reinvented himself, he says, "in the guise of a clever schoolboy." A
fter that he went to Stellenbosch University, studying Latin and classics. Then he attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. There he switched to law and earned a BA. When he returned to South Africa he completed an LLB at the University of South Africa and was its best law graduate.

In October 1994, President Nelson Mandela appointed Cameron as an acting judge of the High Court to chair a commission of inquiry into illegal arms sales. In 1999, Cameron was given an acting stint on the Constitutional Court. Cameron was appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which he served for 8 years.

On December 31, 2008, President Kgalema Motlanthe appointed Cameron to the Constitutional Court. He is considered a crucial member of the Court's progressive wing. He has been described as a "jurist of the highest order," "the greatest legal mind of his generation," and "in a league of his own."

Cameron has been openly gay since the early 1980s. He addressed the crowd in the first pride parade in South Africa held in Johannesburg in October 1990. Thereafter he oversaw the gay and lesbian movement's submissions to the drafters of the South African Constitution and was instrumental in securing the inclusion of an express prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He is one of 29 signatories to the Yogyakarta Principles. He also was a founding member of the Society for Homosexuals on Campus, a student organization at the University of the Witwatersrand, which later became known as Activate Wits.

1995 saw the publication of Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa, "a celebration of the lives of gay men and lesbians in South Africa" which Cameron co-edited with Mark Gevisser.

From 1988 Cameron advised the National Union of Mineworkers on HIV/AIDS, and helped draft and negotiate the industry’s first comprehensive AIDS agreement with the Chamber of Mines. While at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, he drafted the Charter of Rights on AIDS and HIV, co-founded the AIDS Consortium (a national affiliation of non-governmental organizations working in AIDS), which he chaired for its first three years, and founded and was the first director of the AIDS Law Project.

Cameron had himself contracted HIV in the 1980s and became extremely ill with AIDS when working as a High Court judge. His salary allowed him to afford anti-retroviral treatment, which saved his life. Cameron's realization that he owed his life to his relative wealth caused him to become a prominent HIV/AIDS activist in post-apartheid South Africa, urging its government to provide treatment to all. He has strongly criticised President Thabo Mbeki's AIDS-denialist policies. Cameron was the first, and remains the only, senior South African official to state publicly that he is living with HIV/AIDS.

His prize-winning first book, Witness to AIDS, is about his struggle with the illness. It has been published in South Africa, the UK, the US, and in translation in Germany and in China.

Cameron's awards include the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2000); Transnet's HIV/AIDS Champions Award; and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Excellence in Leadership Award. 

Cameron's critical role in the battle for access to antiretroviral treatment in Africa and other parts of the global south is portrayed in the award-winning documentary Fire in the Blood.

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