Interview with Justice Richard Goldstone: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Law and the Search For Justice; Interview with Justice Richard J. Goldstone, Judge, Constitutional Court of South Africa, Former Chief Prosecutor for the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; by Harry Kreisler, 4/14/97
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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Justice Goldstone, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

How long has your family lived in South Africa?

Both my parents were born in South Africa, and one grandparent was born there and the other three came as very small children.

So several generations. And what led you to decide to become a lawyer?

I wanted to be a lawyer as long as I can remember, and I think my maternal grandfather played a role in that. He retired fairly young and when I was small we lived in the same apartment building as my grandparents, so I spent a lot of time with him.

Was he a lawyer?

No, no he wasn't. He was in business but he was a graduate of Cambridge University in England, so he'd studied the humanities and he was a great lover of English literature. He taught me all sorts of things like typing and playing chess and learning to read. I think he somehow saw that a law profession was something that I should pursue.

It's a profession that works a lot with words and language.

It was interesting because there were no lawyers in the immediate family.

But it must have been important that South Africa had an established judicial system in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The first part of your career was actually in corporate law and intellectual property, and not the humanitarian law that you finally wound up in.

That's correct. It was really a 100 percent commercial practice.

But before you went into law, you tasted politics a little as a student leader at the university. What sort of experiences did you have there that might have affected you?

They were very exciting experiences. We were coming up against security police and being followed and listened to on telephones. And our lives were generally made very difficult, but as young students I suppose that added to the excitement of being a student leader.

It was at the university that you came to understand the implications of the Apartheid system. Where there particular forms that that took?

It was really making friends, for the first time in my life, across the color line. And it's those sort of personal friendships that brought home to me the unacceptability and indecency December 1959: Graduation day, University of the Witwaterstrand. of racial oppression. When I went home to a comfortable home, my black peers had to go to segregated, enforced segregated, townships. Some of them had to study by candlelight or paraffin light. And they lived there not because they wanted to but because they had to. They had to carry their I.D.s, their "passes" as they were called, in their pockets. I didn't. If they left them at home they were liable to end up in a police station. It was all of those personal experiences that really began to build up in me a feeling of frustration and even hate for the system that we were living in.

In experiences with your grandfather and in college, what philosophers, legal scholars, or writers most influenced you?

Well really I've always loved reading biographies, and I'm sure I was influenced by biographies, particularly of people from the United States. I've always been more interested in the United States, from a legal - historical point of view, because of the race problems here. And when I was a university student I came into contact, for fairly long periods, with the sort of people who were visiting. As a student leader I came into contact with Clark Kerr. I remember spending four days in the Kruger Game Park with him, at the heart of the problems in the '60s here. And similarly with Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University. Those friendships were maintained and certainly influenced me as well.

And I think at some point in the '60s, after his brother had been assassinated, Robert Kennedy focused on South Africa.

That's right. I was a young member of the Johannesburg bar. In fact he came and spoke to us in our tearoom in Johannesburg.

And what sort of impact did that have?

Well if anything, to be frank, it had a fairly negative influence. I was disappointed at the showmanship side of it. I was amazed at how his aides fanned out amongst the audience of lawyers to find out who was who and then sent him messages so that he'd say the appropriate thing. It was anything but spontaneous. That was our first insight into the sort of mega-politics that goes on.

So in addition to your grandfather, who would you say were important mentors as your career has evolved over the years?

I think at university it was really more friends than any paternal or maternal figure. My mother has played a very important role in my life in many ways, and certainly from a point of view of encouragement in difficult decisions during my life. But when I started practice I was very fortunate in having found a chambers in an office next to one of the leaders of the Johannesburg bar. He was a tax specialist. But he really became a sort of surrogate father to me in my career. He was a man called David Gould.

What in your background most sensitized you to the issues raised by international humanitarian law, which we will talk about in a few minutes?

The whole subject of international humanitarian law began to interest me fairly late. I'd say from the beginning of the '80s, and it was furthered considerably by the intervention of the United States' legal community and administrations in deciding to influence South African lawyers and particularly judges in the whole internationalization of human rights. So I really feel a great debt of gratitude to the people who were involved in the foundations, Ford, Carnegie, Aspen, and the United States Information Agency that enabled these things to happen.

So it was an elevating of the consciousness of the judicial profession.

And also importantly being able to see how the law could be used proactively in an inventive sort of way.

Next page: A Judge under Apartheid

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