Even during the darkest days of apartheid, Arthur Chaskalson had a revolutionary view of the law: that it was about justice. As a young attorney in Johannesburg in the 1950s, he saw firsthand that apartheid law entrenched racial oppression, but he also discovered that a shrewd counsel could find ways to achieve justice on a small scale. That was one reason that at the age of 32, he was brought in to be part of Nelson Mandela's defense team at the infamous Rivonia trial that would eventually see the African leader sentenced to life in prison.
At the trial, Chaskalson's job was not to use powerful rhetoric to indict apartheid--that was Mandela's task--but to employ precise legal techniques to undermine the government's case that Mandela had plotted the violent overthrow of the government. After Mandela was sent to Robben Island, Chaskalson helped start the Legal Resources Centre to provide representation for poor black South Africans, something they had never had before. And when Mandela finally became the first democratically elected President of South Africa, he asked his old defense counsel to be the first head of the first truly free South African high court, where Chaskalson, who died Dec. 1 at 81, presided with fairness and rigor until 2005. "He did well," Mandela once told me of his old friend.