In 1981, a young Roman law lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand left the faculty to go to Oxford University as a Vinerian Scholar.

This most prestigious legal scholarship is awarded by one of the most prestigious universities in the world “for the best performance in the degree Bachelor of Civil Laws”. Only four South Africans have ever summited its heights. One, Leonard Hoffman, became a Law Lord. Another, Rex Welsh QC, was a lion of the Johannesburg Bar, and Tony Honoré was Regius Professor of Civil Law and a Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford.

The fourth member of this distinguished quartet, and our departing lecturer at the time, was Edwin Cameron.

Back then I was the editor of the law students’ newspaper, aptly entitled De Minimis (“about very little”). Cameron, who combined rigorous teaching methods and exemplary scholarship, was held in high and affectionate regard by his students.

Each knew that in that dark night of apartheid he and many of his academic colleagues at Wits stood fast for a rights-driven constitutional order girded by nonracialism and for the supremacy of law, not the rule of men.

Battling to match the man and his moment of achievement all those years ago, and long before Mr Google had entered our lives, I scratched around for a quotation to fit the editorial headlined in Latin (for that was the language of the Roman law Cameron taught us) “Vale, Edwin Cameron” – or farewell.

The best match I could find then were words attributed to William Randolph Hearst on the function of a newspaper: “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Even four decades ago, it was apparent that our young Roman law lecturer did not see law and its principles as an exercise in arcane theory. Rather, at its best it was a means of driving social and political change and uplifting the most marginalised, helping those millions who lived outside the barricades of privilege and suffered the lash of discrimination.

But what of the guardians of that system, the judiciary? Cameron’s distinguished colleague at Wits, John Dugard, had pioneered a frank look at the prejudices and jurisprudence of some of the serried ranks of the judiciary. Edwin then took on a giant of the old order, former chief justice LC Steyn, whose judgments he meticulously and mercilessly analysed. He concluded with a memorable slapdown on a man the National Party had fast-tracked into the highest judicial office: “He was a man of towering but parsimonious intellect.”

Cameron’s life, learning and judicial activism are certainly as towering but their starting and end point is the polar opposite of Steyn. Infusing his judgments is a generosity of spirit and a deep feeling for “the other”.

Universal in the heartfelt tributes on Tuesday to Cameron in the ceremony at the Constitutional Court was the acknowledgement that he personified nonracialism, even a rarer accolade today to someone who is, demographically at least, both white and Afrikaans-speaking.

But it is Cameron’s back story which provides a clue, or several of them, as to his extraordinary ability to reach across the often impossible divides of our fragmented society.

In his biography, Justice, he takes us into a childhood of unimaginable privation: his father was a convicted car thief, his impoverished mother was forced to place him and his sister in an orphanage. As poor and as marginalised as it was possible to be in white SA was the back story here.

But his salvation came from a fierce intelligence, diligent application, a brilliant government-school education and the literal kindness of strangers.

Let’s just hope that Cameron’s replacement at the crucial Constitutional Court, at this critical time, enjoys some of the remarkable gifts which he shared with this society and helped nudge in a better and more hopeful direction.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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