Human rights champion

2008-08-15 00:00

KARTHY Govender’s primary school headmaster didn’t have high hopes for his pupil. In an unscheduled visit to the boy’s geography class during which he was handed the best pupil’s exercise book by the class teacher, the headmaster cast about for a choice of his own … and settled upon Govender.

“I remember his face clearly, as he looked from the best book to what must have been the worst, his expression veering from orgasmic bliss to sheer displeasure. Then he looked at me and said: ‘I fear for your future’.”

It’s a self-deprecating anecdote which the South African Human Rights commissioner and constitutional law expert relates in response to my question, “Did you always shine academically?” And it’s a precursor to the word “salvation” which he uses to describe his decision to study law at the then University of Natal in Durban in 1984.

Already qualified as a barrister of the Middle Temple through the University of London, Govender had been keen to work in the newly democratic Zimbabwe. “I was 22 at the time and was sure I would be a judge by the age of 30. But Zimbabwe didn’t work out, and I battled to find a job in South Africa.”

Together with his then future wife Suria, he made the decision to go back to university.

“I found myself in the right place at the right time,” he says of the vibrant law school at the cutting-edge of opposition to apartheid and staffed by legal luminaries such as David McQuoid Mason, Tony Mathews and Barend van Niekerk. It was an environment in which Govender could thrive.

He won the moot court competition in which final-year students are expected to argue a case in a simulated courtroom, and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study a Master of Laws at the University of Michigan.

It was one of life’s turning points. Although not Ivy League, the law school at Michigan is one of the United States’s finest. It was at Michigan, says Govender, that he was “forced to think in depth, in the Socratic tradition”.

As a student, Govender focused on constitutional and administrative law, although he admits that at that stage he didn’t anticipate the South African legal and political landscape changing as quickly as it did.

When Govender was appointed by Nelson Mandela to the newly established SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in 1995 at the age of 34, he was the youngest commissioner by far. “At that time, it had to have been an affirmative action appointment,” he says. “There were many others better qualified than me. Like John Dugard.”

Appointed in a part-time capacity, Govender was able to continue his work as an academic in the university’s law school where he still teaches mainly final-year and Masters’ students. During a stint at St John’s College, Cambridge as a recipient of a Colenso Scholarship, Govender also wrote The Educator and the Constitution.

Now “40-something” and nearing the end of his second term on the HRC, Govender is the longest-serving commission member. He describes the experience as “empowering” and “exhilarating”.

“It helps that I was part-time for 12 of those 13 years,” he says. Not having to engage with taxing day-to-day issues means Govender is usually involved in the more complicated cases, also handling appeals and issues identified by its chairperson, currently Jody Kollapen.

Being a founder member of the commission — a “Chapter Nine” institution established by the Constitution — Govender is proud of the commission’s achievements in establishing a credible body with “institutional integrity”.

“It was a new body forged within a particular political culture with a mandate to strengthen constitutional democracy and protect human rights,” he says. “I remember [founding chairman] Barney Pityana introduced me to one of the secretaries in the Justice Department … she was a nice, bubbly person. But she was also the woman who had typed Barney’s banning order … That set the tone of the whole process for me.”

Of pressing concern for the commission, says Govender, is to ensure that institutional memory is retained when the terms of all current commissioners end in September 2009. “As appointees to a new body, we had the luxury of learning as we went along. The new crop will have to be able to deliver on day one.”

A number of high-profile cases over the years have brought the work of the HRC into the public eye. These include the commission’s finding in 2003 that the “kill the farmer; kill the boer” slogan, popularised by the late ANC MP Peter Mokaba, was hate speech.

More recently, Govender believes, there’s been a decline in respect for institutional integrity shown by politicians and an increase in the number of cases before the commission, including the “kill for Zuma” remarks by ANC Youth League president Julius Malema and Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi.

“The last few months have been difficult,” he says. “People are questioning the legitimacy of our institutions … which amounts to an attack on the Constitution.”

In election time — the period of greatest political contestation —institutions supporting democracy, like the commission, should be most respected, says Govender. “They are a critical part of a developing society. They cannot be undermined for short-term gains.”

According to Govender, the Constitution and related institutions are “the best deal” for the country and must be protected.

On the bright side, Govender says the issues raised by the Jacob Zuma trial may be “difficult”, but will help us to “grow” as a society. It’s important for South Africans to assert themselves and engage, he says.

When not pondering matters constitutional, Govender is chair of the Film and Publications Review Board, a role he describes as the “less taxing, more enjoyable” part of his professional duties. At the time of our interview, he was fresh from an appeal by a distributor which resulted in the age restriction on the latest Batman film The Dark Knight being moved from 16 to 13 years.

“Of course there are enormous implications in terms of revenue, but generally in my awards, I start at the least restrictive category and move upwards if necessary to protect child viewers. I’ve tried to create a jurisprudence to balance the freedom of expression with other obligations.”

Family matters

WHEN I utter a semi-disparaging quip about Pietermaritzburg, Karthy Govender comes to the city’s defence. “I was born there,” he says. “I like it.”

Govender is a third-generation South African. His father’s grandmother came to South Africa as an indentured labourer.

“There may have been some marital discord in the family in India. A single woman with two small children, my great grandmother got on a boat and left.”

Once her indenture was up, she stayed in South Africa, dominating the family and making ends meet by making clothes and selling fruit and vegetables.

After school at M. L. Sultan in Pietermaritzburg, Govender’s father sent him to Bancrofts School in Woodford Green, Essex, to do his “A” levels. The experience was a culture shock.

“I met openly racist kids. After the first six months, though, race and other issues fell away and I became part of the group.”

For Govender’s father, Balan, it must have involved a huge sacrifice. Now 78, he retired three years ago from his spice and grain shop in Durban’s Prince Edward Street, where he regularly put in a 14-hour day. “In the beginning he served mainly the poor Indian community,” says Govender. “The mark-up was low, so the only way to survive was through sheer hard work.”

In this way, he managed to educate three children. Today, Govender’s sister is a teacher and his younger brother an architect. His mother, Rani, died 18 years ago. “That was the worst moment of my life; she cheered my every success,” he says.

Today, much of his support comes from his wife Suria, a professor of English and founder of the Surialanga Dance Company, and his two children, Yesh and Tarlia-Rasa, who are studying at separate universities.

To unwind, Govender runs and reads. “But it’s boring stuff,” he says of his literature choices. “Mainly biographies and books about legal personalities.”

His future plans? “I don’t really make plans, but I’ve got to spend more time with my family.”

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