Justice Edwin Cameron is South Africa’s only high ranking public official to not only have publicly disclosed his homosexuality, but also his positive HIV status.

In a country and on a continent in which HIV/AIDS have become part of daily life for millions, his position is a lonely one that speaks of the hypocrisy of our leaders and their empty words. In his new book, Witness to AIDS, Cameron expresses his disappointment that no other public official has been able to come forward with their own HIV status.

The book itself is remarkable in that it’s one of the few to have been published in South Africa that targets the average reader about the crisis in which the region finds itself. Witness to AIDS is first and foremost a reasoned and clear argument against HIV/AIDS denialists and the inaction of the continent’s leaders (especially our own) in combating the epidemic. It is, secondly, a memoir of sorts, in which Cameron delves into his life and deeply personal experiences, including his own coming to terms with being HIV positive.

It’s unusual for a judge to make such a strong statement about social and political matters outside of the courtroom, but then Cameron is no ordinary judge. Born in Pretoria in 1953, he overcame a broken family and near-poverty to become a distinguished High Court Judge in 1994, an acting Constitutional Court Judge for a year, and a Judge of Appeal in the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2000. He has written a number of books on contentious matters and has often taken a clear stand (and action) in human rights issues, including lesbian and gay equality and HIV/AIDS.

Justice Cameron spoke to Mambaonline about Witness to AIDS, which has been widely well-received, and the difficulties of being both a judge and an openly gay man living with AIDS.

For many people there’s this perception that a very high ranking official such as yourself is somehow disconnected from the life of the average person.

I do think there’s a necessary and deliberate separation between judges and the public. It’s generally a good thing that judges keep out of the public eye. But we don’t live in ivory towers. In my case I’m involved in many public interest organisations. As a gay man, I’m also very involved with a wider range of people than many of my colleagues. So I don’t see myself removed or uninformed. But of course, being a judge undoubtedly grants you many privileges like income and job security.

The legal fraternity doesn’t usual take well to a judge being in the spotlight. How did your colleagues deal with both your HIV status and outing yourself as a gay man? And now there’s the book which offers a very personal insight into your life.

I’ve been out as a gay man since 1982, and throughout my legal practice. Only once, in 1994, when I was first interviewed for a judicial position, was my homosexuality an issue. It has never been raised again. I’ve found my colleagues remarkably supportive regarding HIV/AIDS. They’ve only expressed admiration for my stand. I accept that many are reserved about my taking such a public role in contentious matters. It’s a genuine and valid debate. How far should a judge go in speaking out? My argument is that, as a judge, I’m in a very special position – with all its privileges – and, in the question of surviving in this epidemic, I’m morally constrained to speak out.

Why write a book? What did you want to accomplish with it?

Most of what I say in the book, I’ve said in public before. But a book is a different kind of intervention. It’s more permanent. It takes on an independent existence. I did it because I wanted to account for my survival in an epidemic that has killed so many people. It’s not primarily a personal statement, but seeks to deal with issues of social justice in the epidemic.

Who do you think will read it?

I’m immensely conscious of the target audience. I did not want to only talk to AIDS activists or specialists. I hope I reach them, but I really want to reach a wider audience. I wanted to make the issue accessible. I hope I’ve achieved that; to make the issue comprehensible to the average relatively well-informed person.

“I hope that the person that goes to a gay bar in Melville or Braamfontein is the same person that sits on the bench…”

Why did you decide to link the wider subject matter of HIV/AIDS to your own personal experiences?

I’ve deliberately told the most intensely personal stories about myself for the purpose of making the book accessible and dealing with the objective issues. So it’s not intended primarily as a personal catharsis. It’s been written to try to further social justice. That’s what it’s about; how I’ve survived and what I – we – can do to help others survive in an epidemic of so much unnecessary and preventable death.

But do you find yourself suffering from some kind of survivor’s guilt; from being able to afford the medication that many other can’t?

Definitely. Survivor’s guilt is inevitable. And in many ways it’s a good thing. I’m alive and talking to you. But why me? The question is not so much, do you feel guilt, but what do you do about it?

The book is written in a very measured and calm tone. Are you angry?

Naturally I do feel angry. As South Africans and Africans, there’s a lot to feel angry about; HIV, poverty, discrimination against GLBTI people, that we live in a skewed world, that not enough is done for people with HIV/Aids. But I don’t point fingers – except at myself. One has to rather ask; what opportunity does this anger offer us? And then to translate that anger into constructive action.

How does your identity as a gay man and being HIV positive intersect? Because they’re often written and spoken about as if they’re the same thing.

I don’t think that’s at all the case in South Africa. In fact, I think there’s not enough perceptive assertion of how being gay makes one more vulnerable to becoming HIV positive. Gay men ARE at special risk. There’s too little awareness in bars and gay literature in South Africa, too little information and education for young gay men from the townships and cities and rural areas about their risk.

Being openly gay and in the judiciary: A difficult position to be in?

Like everyone, I need engagement and fun. When I go to a gay club – and I do occasionally go to gay clubs – and people call me Judge Cameron, I joke and tell them that I’m off duty. I’m immensely careful that all my intimate interactions are consensual, informed and very private. I’m very aware of that. I’ve got to be very careful as a judge; very considered about my actions. For example, I would not go to a place where there is sex in public. It would be inappropriate for me, simply given the job I do and the position I have. But I would hope that there’s a continuum between my private life and my role as a judge. I hope that the person that goes to a gay bar in Melville or Braamfontein is the same person that sits on the bench.

Do you feel the burden of being one of very few South African gay role models?

Not in any pompous sense. I see it as an opportunity and I feel very touched. As a person I’m full of deficiencies – and that’s not false modesty – ask anyone who knows me well. What I’ve done comes from an inner place. I don’t deliberately think of myself as a role model, and the perception doesn’t burden or bother me.

I’ve noticed that you have a remarkably gentle way of speaking, has that played a role, do you think, in winning over opponents?

I hope it’s helped. There are different styles of advocacy; mine is to try to speak the truth implacably, while hoping to recognize what’s human in the other.

Witness to AIDS is published by Tafelberg Publishers and is available at bookstores across the country.

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