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S. Africa Legal Legend Goldstone Retires from Bench - 2003-10-02

One of South Africa's greatest legal minds, Constitutional Court Justice Richard Goldstone, has retired after 23 years on the bench. He rose to prominence in the 1980s, when he conducted a series of high-profile investigations into political violence in apartheid-ruled South Africa. In the 1990s, he became the chief prosecutor for the United Nations war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

There are only a few people in the South African legal fraternity who can claim to have made such a lasting impact as Richard Goldstone.

After his appointment to the Transvaal Supreme Court in 1980, Justice Goldstone made a series of courageous decisions that frustrated the apartheid government's attempts to entrench the separation of the races. He effectively ended prosecutions under the repressive Group Areas Act, which controlled where people of different ethnic backgrounds could live.

In the early 1990s, he led a commission of inquiry into political violence, including the notorious massacres at Boipatong and Sebokeng, and the assassination of Communist Party leader Chris Hani. The inquiry came to be known as the Goldstone Commission. It earned him respect and admiration both at home and abroad, but also death threats and hate mail from defenders of the dying apartheid regime.

His colleague on the Constitutional Court, Justice Albie Sachs, tells VOA that during the apartheid era Judge Goldstone made it harder for the government to implement its racist laws and policies.

"What Richard Goldstone showed, in the days when he was a judge under apartheid, was that an honest and dignified judge who's sensitive to fundamental human rights of all human beings, even in the most dire circumstances, could find some space for concepts of legality and respect for human dignity," he said.

Justice Sachs says that later on, Mr. Goldstone represented a sense of continuity between what he calls the best of the traditions of the past that managed to survive the years of apartheid, and the whole new era of the constitution that governs South Africa today.

Former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, says Mr. Goldstone's contribution to the peaceful democratic transition in South Africa was indispensable.

Internationally, Justice Goldstone may be best known for his role as the first chief prosecutor for the U.N. war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The judge told South African state radio it was a tremendous challenge.

"It was very exciting. It was a huge and difficult challenge, being the first chief prosecutor of the first international criminal court," he said. "It was a huge learning experience. It is clearly a matter of pride for me that the tribunal, both the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, are up and running, and that in consequence, and I think it is a direct consequence, we have now a permanent international criminal court also up and running."

Although Justice Goldstone is leaving the South African Constitutional Court, he is not planning to retire into obscurity. He will spend a year teaching at two universities in New York City, and he will remain chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

He says he is looking forward to beginning a new career in academia, but he does plan to return to South Africa, which he says will always be his home.