His mother was an Afrikaan, and his father was a first-generation Scottish-South African. Compared with other whites in South Africa at the time the family was poor. When he was six his mother put him and his sister into a children's home.
Cameron attended eight different schools but ended up at a very good high school. He then went to study law and Latin at Stellenbosch University. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he went in 1976 to take a BA in jurisprudence. While at Oxford he won its highest prize for law, the Vinerian. He graduated with a first class honours degree. He then took an LLB at the University of South Africa, with an award for best law graduate.
He was at the general bar for three years and then moved to the Human Rights Institute at the Witwatersrand University Centre for Applied Legal Studies. He did legal work for the ANC and the trade union COSATU. He defended captured guerrillas.
Cameron divorced his wife when he realised that he was gay. He founded a gay lawyers group which took over the law reform trust which was held by the Gay Association of South Africa (GASA). He worked with members of GASA, including Kevin Botha, to lobby for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the new South African constitution.
Edwin Cameron believed that he became infected with HIV in the 1980s but on the advice of colleagues decided that there was no need to reveal the fact. In 1993/4 he was part of the drafting team for the development of the South African national AIDS policy.
He became a High Court judge in 1995 aged 42.
At the end of 1997 he fell ill and started combination therapy. When he was interviewed for a seat on the South African Constitutional Court he decided that he had to make a statement about his health. In April 1999 he confirmed publicly that he was living with AIDS. He was given a temporary seat on the South African Constitutional Court.
On 10th. July 2000 he gave the Jonathan Mann memorial lecture at the 13th. International AIDS conference which South Africa was hosting in Durban. His criticism of the way that President Thabo Mbeki had been handling the HIV/AIDS crisis was reported on radio and television that day, and in the press the following day.