JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Judge Richard Goldstone was buying a magazine in the gift shop of his hotel here recently when another customer shoved a piece of paper in front of him. To the judge's surprise, the man smiled and asked for his autograph.
That may well be the only time in the history of this troubled country that anyone has asked a white judge for his autograph. But these are not ordinary times in South Africa, and Goldstone is no ordinary judge.
The 54-year-old jurist is chairman of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and Intimidation--or, as it is commonly known, the "Goldstone Commission." In just 18 months, Goldstone has become one of the most respected men among both blacks and whites.
He has been called the chief referee in South Africa, and his commission's public inquiries have played an unrivaled role in keeping the fragile negotiations process on track. In a country where the government and the judicial system are distrusted by millions of blacks, Goldstone's commission has managed to maintain its reputation as an impartial adjudicator. His willingness to investigate everything from government covert operations to township massacres to left-wing black terrorism, quickly and without fear or favor, has gone a long way toward keeping a lid on tensions.
"We haven't agreed with all his findings," said Carl Niehaus, a spokesman for the African National Congress, which has occasionally been the target of commission criticism. "But we do find him a person of integrity."
President Frederik W. de Klerk had consulted with ANC President Nelson Mandela and other political leaders before appointing Goldstone to head the commission. Since then, the commission has grown rapidly, embarking on 22 inquiries and adding a 40-member investigative staff. Today, several inquiries are sitting simultaneously under Goldstone-appointed chairmen. And in the past two weeks, Goldstone announced two new inquiries. One will investigate all violence affecting the coming election campaign and a second will investigate the police force under the command of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi in the KwaZulu homeland.
Goldstone was born in a suburb of Johannesburg. He worked as an advocate for 17 years before being appointed to the bench, in 1980. In 1989, he rose to the Appellate Division Supreme Court in Bloemfontein, the nation's highest court.
He headed a one-man inquiry into the shooting of nine black protesters by police in 1990, and won praise for his courageous finding that, while the protest was poorly organized, the police had acted improperly. Nine police officers were eventually charged.
Goldstone and his wife, Noleen, spend most of their time on the road, moving between their apartment in Cape Town and hotels in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. They have two grown children and, now, one grandchild. Goldstone is a thoughtful man who seems to relish the dual challenge of his judicial and commission duties. To relax, he listens to music, mostly classical, and likes good wine--"South African, yes, but preferably French," he says.
Question: Your commission has the power to subpoena witnesses and order them to answer incriminating questions. It also has the power to enter any premises in South Africa and search for and seize documents. And, yet, it is not a court. Why is that distinction important?
Answer: We've got none of the powers of a court. The fact that I'm a judge gives the commission no more power than if a non-judicial officer were presiding. If witnesses don't turn up to answer our subpoena, we refer the case to the attorney general for prosecution.
Generally, I wouldn't like to have powers of contempt, powers of arrest and all of those things because it would turn us truly into a judicial proceeding, which we're not. And I believe that would inhibit my ability to consult. You can't consult with people when you're sitting in a judicial capacity--one has to remain absolutely out of it.
Q: Whom do you consult with?
A: From the word go, I've consulted widely with the main parties interested in what we're doing. For two reasons. Scott Kraft has been The Times bureau chief in South Africa since 1988. He interviewed Richard Goldstone in his hotel suite in downtown Johannesburg.
Firstly, to get advice from people with an interest in our work, and that's been invaluable. And, secondly, to inform. It's important for people who are involved to understand why we're having inquiries in some matters and not in other matters. What's made it easy is that nobody has mistaken consultation for seeking agreement. I haven't consulted to get agreement. If people do agree, that's good. If they don't, it doesn't mean we're not going to take action.
Q: The commission is the only truly independent investigative body operating in the country today. Why is it important for the country's future?