Two South African Men of the Law

27 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2015

Date Written: 2014


This essay remembers two great South African lawyers, Nelson Mandela, who became post-apartheid South Africa’s first President, and Arthur Chaskalson, the man whom Mandela chose to head the country’s new Constitutional Court. Both men’s lives, remarkable in themselves, also help us to understand what it means to be a “man of the law.” Mandela was a revolutionary and a lawbreaker, but he was also a lawyer who was never disbarred despite being imprisoned for almost three decades – and in fact his life turns out to exemplify a faith in law: not a naïve notion that apartheid law was just, but a deep commitment to the importance and value of just law. Arthur Chaskalson, for his part, was a leader of the South African bar who used South African law against itself in the struggle against apartheid. He too believed in law, but again not in a naïve way: he did not imagine that law would end apartheid, but he knew that South African law still contained elements of justice, and he used those elements to contribute to apartheid’s dissolution and to help build the legal order of the new South Africa. Both Mandela and Chaskalson were lawyer-statesmen, to use Anthony Kronman’s phrase, but their lives teach us that lawyer-statesmen are not always people who exchange moral certainty for wisdom and forbearance, as Kronman’s account seems to suggest. Different times call for different kinds of statesmen and stateswomen, and Nelson Mandela and Arthur Chaskalson brought to their lifelong struggle against searing injustice deep fidelity to law, but also political passion and radical conviction.

Keywords: Nelson Mandela, Arthur Chaskalson, South Africa, apartheid, lawyer-statesman

Suggested Citation

Ellmann, Stephen, Two South African Men of the Law (2014). Temple International & Comparative Law Journal, Vol. 28, p. 431, 2014; NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN:

Stephen Ellmann (Contact Author)

New York Law School (deeased)

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