A man with a passion for justice beyond the law
Fighting for human rights, both professionally and philanthropically, during a politically, socially and racially sensitive time is no small feat. As was former Human Rights advocate, High Court judge and author Chris Nicholson’s experience for most of his career during the Apartheid government’s regime.
Drawing on his experiences, Nicholson’s most recent endeavour is a gripping stage drama, Justice is a Woman, that delves into both current and historical issues of women in law, the 2 000-year exclusion of women from law and the notion of justice for women.
“There’s a difference between law and justice. We are all striving for justice and the law is the ways and means we get there. There shouldn’t be a big difference; however, sometimes the laws don’t align with justice,” explains Nicholson.
Justice is a Woman tells the riveting story of a female master’s student who lays a case of molestation against her male university professor. The lead character, a female attorney representing the professor, is faced with a moral dilemma that questions her values and threatens to tear her personal life apart.
“Through my time as a judge and having given talks to groups of high school girls about taking up law as a career, I began researching the history of women in law, their banishment from the profession and sexual harassment cases. I wrote two short stories on particular elements of my research and Justice is a Woman encompasses this research and the books,” shares Nicholson.
Nicholson’s career, spanning 50 years, saw him tackle a number of human rights cases; most notably Harry Gwala’s defence, litigation against pass and other laws of oppression, the detention and maltreatment of political opponents under the Apartheid government, justice for the families of the Uitenhage shooting, as well as cases tackling the right to antiretrovirals for prisoners, gay marriages and adoption. He also became active in labour law and fought for those who were unlawfully dismissed.
“I’ve always been a ‘lefty’, fighting for the underdog is my passion. During Apartheid, my ideas were often frowned upon, putting my family and career at risk. However unpleasant, I stood up for what I believed in, even if it upset the powers that be,” says Nicholson.
As an avid sportsman with a particular fondness for cricket, he started the first non-racial cricket club in Pietermaritzburg, Aurora, in the 70’s. This move sought the attention of the Apartheid government and he was subsequently threatened with prosecution for a breach of the Group Areas Act.
“I felt it unfair that we couldn’t play with passionate cricketers of colour and I sought to create a club that welcomed everyone with a shared passion for the game,” says Nicholson.
His efforts drew much attention to him from the Apartheid government and he was listed by the State Security Council in 1986 as a “politically sensitive person” against whom action was to be taken.
“They harassed my family for over a year; including death threats and other unpleasant acts because I was fighting for people in detention against the security police,” explains Nicholson.
Despite the hardships, Nicholson has received numerous awards – the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Edgar Brookes Award and the St. Michaels Award from Michaelhouse School for outstanding work in the Human Rights Field.
“I came from very conservative parents, went to private schools and I had no political thoughts in my head. My wife introduced me to people who educated me as to what was really going on during Apartheid – it bothered me that I had not known what a bad place this country was, and I decided that I would become a human rights lawyer. My wife was a member of the Black Sash and ran a legal advice office for the oppressed. Together, we worked on cases that she came across,” shared Nicholson.
In 1990, his career shifted when he joined the University of KwaZulu-Natal as Senior Law Lecturer and served on the editorial board of the South African Journal of Human Rights. He returned to the courts in 1994 as a High Court judge. During this time and into his retirement, Nicholson has published several books, articles and short story compilations highlighting past and present prejudicial issues.
“Many facts dribbled out during cases that fascinated me, I often spent time researching the topics that arose and so I decided to write books on weekends. My stories often draw on factual occurrences that raise interesting moral dilemmas,” recounts Nicholson.
The inspiration for his writing originated from his involvement in the case of the Cradock Four. He has published four more books and many short stories and has been nominated twice for an Alan Paton award. His subject matter varied from racial segregation, Apartheid murders and anti-Semitism, to ambidexterity and cheating in sport.
Nicholson still has many dreams, starting with his first theatrical production, Justice is a Woman, together with Director Paul Spence, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company with international experience.
“I want to carry on exploring my ideas, writing and educating people. It’s one thing to know about the world but it’s another thing to change people’s perceptions. That’s all I’m trying to do,” says Nicholson.
“The Roman maxim ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’ is my life’s motto and a strong theme in my upcoming play – the beauty of justice is that it must be realised regardless of the consequences. I also frequently draw on Alexander Pope’s ‘Drink deep or taste not’ which speaks to my belief that you should become and fulfil what you are, no matter who you are,” says a heartfelt Nicholson.
Justice is a Woman will launch at Michaelhouse on 22 May with subsequent performances at Grace College and the Hexagon Theatre until 15 June. For more information, follow @justiceisawoman on Facebook, to book visit Webtickets.co.za or contact Paul Spence on firstname.lastname@example.org or (084) 341 1742.