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Law Clinic a proud and vigorous force for good

- Wits University

Retired judge Edwin Cameron applauds the Wits Law Clinic for its role in embedding public interest law in the country.

Justice Edwin Cameron reflects on the history of the Wits Law Clinic and the future of law in South Africa

The Wits Law Clinic, founded in 1973 at the height of apartheid, celebrated its 50th anniversary at an event attended by the country’s leading legal minds.

Cameron, a renowned judge who served in the Constitutional Court of South Africa, delivered the keynote address in which he lauded the Clinic for “pioneering the concept of law clinic studies but also, more deeply, in embedding a fragile but vital tradition of law and legal services within the law school.”

“The Law Clinic was designed to expand elementary justice to the marginalised, the dispossessed and the oppressed,” he said.

In a richly historical address, Cameron shared that Lady Felicia Kentridge founded the Clinic in the politically charged 1970s – thirteen years after the Sharpeville Massacre and 10 years after the arrest and eventual life-imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the other Rivonia triallists.

As resistance against apartheid intensified, and these efforts were met with unmatched brutality, "the Clinic was part of the resistance movement that used the law to secure victories against apartheid,” said Cameron. 

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Professor Ruksana Osman, commented that the Clinic, which began with a small number of staff and student volunteers, has been critical to providing access to justice, and critical legal training to students.

President of the South African Universities Law Clinic Association and Director of the Law Clinic at the University of Pretoria, Eddie Hanekom added his congratulations, stating that the Clinic has “done tremendous work – groundbreaking work – for other law clinics in the country, especially in the early days of university law clinics being established in the country.”

Law Clinic celebrates 50th Anniversary

Law under siege from within

Concerns are rife that the rule of law is under threat in South Africa – a  sentiment Cameron shares.

“Our law is in a perilous state. Our much-vaunted Constitution runs an acute risk of failure,” he said.

Laying the blame on legal practitioners, Cameron said: “Scoundrelous, unprincipled and unethical lawyers, including Wits graduates, seek to subvert elementary principles of legal reasoning and legal process in order to protect bigger scoundrels.”

These lawyers pose a threat to the rule of law because they are inflicting damage on the law – in some ways greater even than the damage apartheid inflicted. This is because they threaten belief in the Constitution itself, and the Bill of Rights at its heart.

“By cynically subverting the law to advance the interests of their clients they threaten the law itself. These tactics, amidst the collapse of government function, the disintegration of state services, and the mass infiltration and takeover of government entities by criminal syndicates, threaten all we have stood for and fought for.”

He called those who stand for justice and human dignity, and the fulfilment of the promises of the Bill of Rights, to use the powerful tools at their disposal – the law – to ensure that law and the Constitution remain supreme. Read his speech.

Speaking on the sideline Hanekom said that the use of the law to increase inconsistencies is certainly an alarming trend that should be stopped by ethical younger lawyers. The law is in need of lawyers “that will put their hands up and say ‘we will abide by the law, we will abide by the ethics and we will not utilise the courts to fight for causes that are not advantageous to the poor, impoverished and marginalised in South Africa’.”