Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

As the world celebrates Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron writes for about the iconic leader’s role in South Africa’s struggle for LGBTI equality.

Without Nelson Mandela’s great-hearted commitment to humanity and justice, sexual orientation equality would never have found its way into the South African Constitution in 1994.

Mr Mandela seldom singled out gays and lesbians in express words. But it was plain that South Africa would never have made history by becoming the first country, anywhere in the world, to include sexual orientation in its Bill of Rights without Mr Mandela’s active support and endorsement and leader of the ANC.

Mr Mandela’s commitment to gay and lesbian dignity goes back many decades. In 1962, when the apartheid security police arrested him, he was posing under cover as a driver to a white man, Cecil Williams.

Williams was a gay man, and widely known in the ANC to be so. His closeness to Mr Mandela was obvious.

Three decades later, after our campaign to include sexual orientation in the Constitution succeeded in 1994, I was nominated for appointment as a Judge of the High Court. I made myself available for appointment as a proudly and openly gay man, who had participated in the struggle for LGBTI equality in our country.

In December 1994, I was amongst the first five judges Mr Mandela appointed to the High Court. I became the first openly gay judge in South Africa’s history and, at that time, one of the very few openly gay judges anywhere in the world.

Mr Mandela was not only happy to appoint me – he did so with emphatic personal warmth, which he personally expressed to me and to others.

But the battle was not yet over. The 1994 Constitution was only an interim document, negotiated between the outgoing apartheid government and the liberation movements.

Justice Edwin Cameron

Justice Edwin Cameron

After the first election, the democratically elected national assembly had to finalise the Constitution. Mr Mandela was now President Mandela. It was uncertain whether the first-round victory for sexual orientation would be carried through to the second round.

President Mandela soon gave a signal of his personal position. Very soon after taking office, he met with gay and lesbian groups at the Union Buildings. He did so years before LGBTI groups were officially received by other heads of state.

The battle to preserve sexual orientation in the South African Constitution became a triumph.

Without President Mandela’s support that would have been unthinkable. His support made history for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people everywhere.

As he lies frail in a Pretoria hospital, we all pay tribute to the vast expanse of his vision of humanity. We honour his generosity in seeing beyond prejudice and small-minded exclusion.

And, as proudly LGBTI people across the globe, we mark with gratitude his commitment, ahead of so many other leaders, to our great moral struggle for justice and equality.

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