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Justice Richard Goldstone

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Richard man

1938 Born on 26 October

1962 Studied BA LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand 1976 Senior Counsel Johannesburg bar

1980 Judge of the Transvaal Supreme Court

1984—2004 Chair Standing Advisory Committee on company law

1985—2000 President National Institute of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders (NICRO)

1994—1996 Chief Prosecutor  United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

1994—2003 Chair Human Rights Institute of South Africa; of which he remains a trustee

1995—2007 Chancellor University of the Witwatersrand  

1996—2006 Member Faculty of the Salzburg Seminar

1997 Member International Panel established by the government of Argentina to monitor the inquiry into Nazi activities in the republic since 1938

1998 Chair high-level group of international experts that drafted a Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities for the Director-General of UNESCO (the Valencia Declaration)

1999—2001 Chair International Independent Inquiry on Kosovo

1999—2003 Member Group of Advisers of the International Committee of Red Cross

2001 Co-Chair of the International Task Force on Terrorism, which was established by the International Bar Association

2001 Visiting Professor School of Law at New York University

2004 Secretary-General  United Nations to the Independent International Committee, to investigate the Iraq Oil for Food program

2008 Chair committee to advise the United Nations on appropriate steps to preserve the archives and legacy of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda

2009 Chair United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on possible war crimes and international human rights violations in Gaza

2016 Taught at the Central European University in Budapest and at Oxford University

The actualisation of an egalitarian South Africa was made possible by the work and sacrifices of the many Black, Indian and Colored struggle icons. There were also a few whites who joined the left to battle against apartheid. However, a few whites stayed on the right and used the privileges that the system accorded them to poke holes into apartheid’s structural framework. Their actions paved the way for the eventual collapse of discrimination and segregation. One such person is Justice Richard Goldstone.


Born on the 26th of October 1938, Richard grew up in an upper-middle-class white suburb, in Johannesburg. He got admitted to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand in the late 1950s. It was there that he had a defining moment following a chance meeting in the cafeteria with a fellow black student from Soweto. Even though both of them were students, the stark contrast of their lives and opportunities moved him.


It wasn’t long before he got involved in student politics rising to be president of the student council. His activities did not go unnoticed by the state security. He was followed and they had his telephone tapped. He graduated with Honors in 1962 and following the encouragement of people like his mentor John Ditcot and Arthur Chaskelson.


Justice Goldstone took up a position as a judge on the apartheid bench. Today, he is considered to be one of several liberal judges who issued significant rulings that undermined apartheid from within the system.


After the first democratic elections in 1994 Richard was quickly sought after both at home and abroad to assist in the restructuring of countries that were emerging from the throughs of oppression and war. He went ahead and helped to set up a pathway for truth, justice, and reconciliation in these nations.

Richard leader

Be brave, courageous, committed and prepared to put your life on the line

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

Justice Richard Goldstone

South African

Public Servant


Judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court


1991—1994 Served as the Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation, which came to be known as the Goldstone Commission



Served as Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa

Awards for his roles as Public Servant

1994 Awarded the International Human Rights Award from the American Bar Association

2006 Awarded the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights jointly with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour

2007 Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

2007 Received the Richard E. Neustadt Award from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

2007 Received the World Peace Through Law Award from the Whitney Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies at International Law at Washington University in St. Louis

2009 Received the International Justice Award of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

2009 Received the Stockholm Award for International Justice.

Richard interview

Things You May Not Know About Richard

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.




The cafeteria encounter that changed everything

"... My parents had very strong feelings against racial oppression, and they were certainly strong opponents of apartheid. But they were never activists and I’d never met any black South Africans as equal, as peers, until my first week at Wits University. When in the cafeteria I found myself sitting next to another first-year student, a black South African who lived in Soweto. We started talking about each others' lives and I remember as if it was yesterday, my anger and frustration of the unfairness of my living in an upper-middle-class white suburb, in Johannesburg, having electricity, running water, hot water and my fellow student coming from an enforced area living in Soweto where a lot of his peers, his contemporaries some of the black students, didn't have electricity. They had to work at night with paraffin lamps, some even with candles, and he had to carry the dompas, which I didn't. He could be picked up by policemen the minute he walked off the campus if he didn't have his ID (Dompas) with him. That really made me angry and frustrated and propelled me into student politics..."



The strange apartheid

“... It was difficult in some ways because some of the right-wing judges objected very strongly to some of the decisions I made, but we all respected each other's independence. I think that was important. We all came from the bar and I think the bar inculcates independence in people… And you know the apartheid era was a very strange one. One of the books written about South Africa at the time was called ‘the very strange society’, and it was. The government respected the independence of the judiciary. During the apartheid I have no doubt no judges got secret orders from the government about what to do what not to do, they would have objected to it. The government didn't need to, because 90 percent of the judges were in favour of the apartheid laws anyways. So the government didn't need to tell them what to do, but those of us who opposed it never had any questions raised about our independence. The police stayed off. It was very different when I was a student, it was much more difficult in a way because you know I had attracted the interest of the security police and I was followed wherever I went my telephone was tapped. That was done to intimidate. There was no equivalent on the bench because even the most pro-apartheid judges would have objected to any invasion of the independence of the judiciary…”



A detained Zwelakhe Sisulu also had some wise counsel

“... I was given the doctor’s consulting room at John Foster Square as my office, and the first detainee called in was Zwelakhe Sisulu. He’d been in detention already for some weeks and we'd never met each other, I introduced myself, I said I was a judge at the supreme court and I had this request to visit detainees, I told him my problem which he understood, and without any hesitation, he said to me you should visit the detainees. He said I’m so pleased to see you, come back soon. And he gave me his complaints. He had nothing to read and I was able to bring magazines. I have always been grateful to fZwelakhe for giving me that advice because his views were reflected by really every one of the detainees I met because I took great care to distance myself from the prison and police authorities. I had a woman law clerk whom I took with me. And the police and the prison authorities hated the idea of a young woman coming into their prison. But I took her with me to send a message… I got them all in the large dining room and I said to them I’m a judge from the supreme court and I’m visiting you and I want to be clear I’ve got nothing to do with your detention I can’t get you out but I’m here to check up if you have any complaints about the way you being treated and I said the first question I want to ask you, is what language you want me to talk to you in? English or Afrikaans, I said, unfortunately, I don't speak any of the other languages but I was giving them a choice which they never had in prison, and they screamed out English English... I was able to build a distance between what I was doing and the authorities on the one side and the detainees on the other. And I think that built up trust…”



The deficient law school of apartheid era

dissimilar from our work in a new democratic regime. Or a new democratic South Africa. So it wasn't all that difficult from that point of view. What was difficult was, and many people overseas didn't or still don’t understand is that none of us had any formal training in constitutional law. We had no constitution, and none of us had any formal training in human rights law. You know those were two topics that weren't taught at law school because there weren't relevant in apartheid South Africa. There was no constitution, and human rights were spun. So there was no point in teaching those topics. So we were all to an extent self-taught, in those areas, so we learned on the job, we learned together. But it was in that sense that we were able to benefit from the experience of the German constitutional court justices… We were able to gain from them their experience and some of the issues that they thought would arise. Issues like equality which was new in South Africa. Apartheid was a very antithesis of recognising the equality of all human beings and the German court also after the Nazi era, had to grapple with equality which had been denied during the Nazi era…”

Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Richard's conversation. 



How a girlfriend helped his activism

“... At Wits the students were very active in the SRC. The whole senate and the council at Wits were all very active in opposing the then serious attacks on academic freedom and the attempts by the apartheid government to introduce university apartheid and we had marches through the streets of Johannesburg that were led by the chancellor and the vice-chancellor and the representative of the student council. At the end of my first year, I was in consultation with some other student leaders I decided to stand for election in the SRC which was unusual for a first-year student. I was elected. The main reason I was elected was that I had a girlfriend who had very good contacts at the women's residence, so she got the whole residence to vote for me and I think without her influencing, I wouldn't have been elected to the SRC... So it was a nice secret between us. At the end of my first year on the SRC, I was elected to the executive committee of NUSAS [National Union of South African Students] which was even much more involved in anti-apartheid activism and I was then re-elected for a second year and became a vice president of the SRC and in my third year, I became president of the SRC. It was a very difficult time politically because, during the period when I was president of the SRC, there was the Sharpeville massacre and the state of emergency… It was the first state of emergency immediately post Sharpeville and one of the emergency laws was that there could be no meetings… No organisations could meet unless they were statutory bodies and really by a quirk of fate, the Wits SRC was the only SRC in the country that was referred to in the statute setting that controlled the university so we were a statutory body and we were able to meet at that time…”



Wise words from close friend George Bisos

“... In the last 5 years of apartheid, apart from these decisions that began to wipe out the apartheid system, I think an important role I played was visiting people in detention. When there was the state of emergency from 1987 to 1990, I must have visited between 3 and 4 thousand people in detention, and in that way I met all the young leaders, all the young black leaders from all sides, ANC supporters, Inkata supporters, and PAC supporters. In my personal interactions with them, I think they learned to understand where I was coming from and in the years that followed, even to this day, when I walk into many particularly government offices, even walking on the streets, in Sandton City, and in Cape Town, people walk up to me, and remind me that I visited them in prison, and brought them magazines. I distributed hundreds of thousands of magazines to detainees… President Botha had made a surprise announcement in parliament saying that he wanted judges to visit people in detention out of the blue. I had no doubt he did it because he wanted to tell the world that they weren't going beat up the detainees… Our judge president then, Judge Boshoff, asked me whether I would be the sole Transvaal province judge visiting detainees… When I was asked to do this, it was a difficult decision. I didn't want as a judge or personally, to be involved with the system of detaining people without trial. I didn't like being involved in it and I didn't think it was good for the judiciary and I didn't know whether to go with it or not. And I decided the best person to give me advice was my close friend George Bizos. I called George at the bar and fortunately, he was free for lunch and I said George this is my problem and he said I see your problem. He said the only advice I can give you is, visit some detainees and ask them what they want you to do. So I went that very afternoon to John Foster Square there were a number of detainees there and I told the station commander I wanted to see them and I hadn't been appointed yet but here is an example. In the apartheid era, a police officer would never have denied a request from a judge…”



The unusual request, escaping death threats and President Mandela’s insistence

“... The publicity which the Goldstone commission got, led to my appointment as effectively the first chief prosecutor of the Yugoslavia tribunal that had been set up by the United Nations. I didn't want the appointment. It's an unusual story. The invitation came in July of 1994. President Mandela had recently been appointed as president, our first democratically elected president. I got a fax message from the president of the Yugoslavia tribunal Judge Kaseizi, an Italian Humanitarian law expert, asking if I was interested in becoming the prosecutor. It was a ridiculous invitation because I knew nothing, I’d never prosecuted, I knew nothing about the law of war, and I knew virtually nothing about the former Yugoslavia. So I was at the point of drafting a polite no-thank-you when I had two phone calls. One was from my wife to say any interesting posts? We'd just come back from a holiday in Europe. I said no but there's an amusing invitation to become a chief prosecutor in the Hague. She said wouldn't that be wonderful to get away from our security. This is because I was under heavy security in South Africa ever since the assassination of Chris Hani. I was on that death list. I said yes it would be wonderful, but not to do something I’m not fit to do. She understood and I put the phone down. I was about to send off the fax and the phone rang again. It was President Mandela. Two or three days before, I’d been informed that I was going to be in the constitutional court. President Mandela said that ‘I understand you've been invited to become the prosecutor of the Yugoslavia tribunal’ and I said ‘yes Mr. President and I am busy refusing’. He asked me why and I told him. He said I understand your reasons but don't send off your letter and I say why not, and he says I’ve just spoken to the Secretary-General and I told him that you'll do it. So that left me with little option. I said what about the constitutional court?, He said no don't worry about that the cabinet has decided today that we’ll amend the constitution to make it possible to appoint acting judges so you can go off. He said I’ve told the Secretary-General that we’ll spare you just for two years ( it was a four-year appointment ), then I want you back on the constitutional court. So that's how it happened…”



A judge on the apartheid bench

“... My role model was John Ditcot, he was one of the 11 original justices of the constitutional court and former president of NUSAS. He was a few years, 5 or 6 years older than me. He was the first liberal judge appointed during the apartheid era. He was the first one who was prepared to accept an appointment and I think without his being a role model, I doubt that I would have taken an appointment during the apartheid era. It was a difficult decision in those days whether to take an appointment on the apartheid bench, knowing that I was taking an oath to apply laws some of which were quite immoral and more than distasteful, but on the other hand, knowing that the courts were beginning to be used by the legal resources center by lawyers for human rights and by other organisations. There was the encouragement of people like Arthur Chaskelson of the legal resources center, who encouraged liberal judges to take appointments because they wanted sympathetic judges on the bench and not judges who will have an immediate reaction against them…”



Bringing down the enemy from within

“... My period as a judge during the apartheid system was marked with a number of decisions that began to eat away aspects of the apartheid system. Specifically the residential segregation, in the Govender case in 1981, and it was for that reason, I think that the government realised that I wasn't prepared to use the law dishonestly. That I certainly went out of my way to give it an interpretation that was consistent with equality and human rights and fair process to the extent possible. There were many gaps in the apartheid laws which enabled some judges, John Ditcot, and others to give judgments and to make decisions that were able to start breaking down the apartheid system because of gaps in the law that weren’t by chance. The apartheid government and parliament in the last 20 years of apartheid didn't like saying what they were in fact doing, so there was a great pretense. It was sort of like George Orwell’s 1984, the law that they wanted to do, the law that was going to make it more difficult for black South Africans to carry passes was called the abolition of passes act, it's was in fact the opposite. The law they introduced to stop black students coming to Wits and Cape Town was called the extension of the university act. So they wanted to give out to the rest of the world that they were doing good things when in fact they were doing terrible things. That enabled some Judges to take them at their word. In the Govender case for example I used a fiction that was quite useful, and it was perhaps a little disingenuous. I said that parliament could never have intended to force people to live on the streets. Knowing full well it's exactly what they did intend, that was the purpose of some of these residential laws. So there were those gaps in the law that we were able to use and that created a reputation for some of us…”



The Goldstone commission and the 3 conditions

“... There was a shooting into a crowd of demonstrators outside Sebokeng where many people were killed many people were injured. Again I was employed as a single judge to inquire into Sebokeng and I was given as the evidence leader, J J Detoy who was then the deputy attorney general in Johannesburg and with his able assistance, we were able to prove exactly what happened. It enabled me to bring out a report finding that the police had acted quite illegally in shooting the demonstrators, and as a result of that Sebokeng report the government paid many millions of rands in damages, and a number of policemen were charged… It was those two commissions, I think, that led to my appointment to head the Goldstone commission. It was a difficult decision whether to accept that appointment. The then justice minister Kubi Kutsia who said to me that it had taken two months for the parties of the peace commission to agree on five people to head that commission and on a chairman. He said it's been unanimously agreed that I should chair it. He said that if I refused, it would take them another 3 months to find somebody else. I said well I need 24 hours to think about it. I discussed it with my main adviser, my wife, and we realised it would be a difficult job. I had three conditions which I put to Kubi Kutsia the next day. Condition one was that I continued with the Appellate division… Secondly, I didn’t want any payment for doing this … Thirdly I said if I have to be away from home for more than 24 hours, my wife comes with me at state expense. He said that was fine. And that really was a very difficult job. Fortunately, the other four members of the commission were highly appropriate, two black lawyers and two white lawyers. And we got on extremely well from the beginning…”



A German-South African parallel

“... I think all of us, 11 of the original justices of the constitutional courts, came from such different backgrounds but we had one very important common factor, and that was a human rights background. All of us had been involved as activists proponents of human rights. All of us had been very much against the apartheid system, against oppression. So that was a common factor that linked us together. And that became apparent from our very first meeting. I don't know if you're aware that the first time that the 11 of us ever met together as a group was not in South Africa. It was in Germany, at the German Constitutional court. The then German Ambassador to South Africa, Christian Ubershier, saw the connection between the South African constitutional court and the German constitutional court. Both were new courts set up in the aftermath of, in the case of Germany in the aftermath of the Nazi era. While in the case of South Africa, in the aftermath of the apartheid era. The Ambassador suggested to the then president of the German court that she should invite the 11 of us to have a week of seminars with their justices to discuss issues that may be useful to judges of a new constitutional court. And it was a wonderful experience for the 11 of us. But that was the first time we met. But I’m sure that was unique, has never happened before, and will never happen again. That the first time members of a new court ever met was many thousands of miles away from home…”

Richard Full Interview

Full Interview 

Richard lesson

Servant Leaders must be brave, courageous, committed and prepared to put your life on the line


"... By the end of the 2 and a quarter years, I spent in the Yugoslavia tribunal I built an office of about 250 people from 40 countries all of them wonderful people brave committed courageous prepared to put their lives on the line in order to investigate and so on. And one of the things that also I think made a big difference was the media. I think it was very important that for the Goldstone Commission and Yugoslavia and Rwanda that there were reports about what we were doing. So it was very important one of the things that I learnt was to use the media to help build up transparency and give people confidence that what was happening was out there on the table. Everybody knew what was happening all the time...."

Daniel in conversation with

Justice Richard Goldstone




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