Newsmaker: Pillay – the voice of the victim everywhere

2011-10-24 09:54

Back in the early 1960s, a Durban community rallied together to raise money to send a bright young, teenager to university.

She did not disappoint. A few years later, in 1965, she graduated with a law degree and two years ­later became the first woman in the then Natal province to open her own practice.

But decades of hardship resulting from the institutionalised ­racial discrimination of the time lay ahead. She threw herself into protecting the rights of political activists detained by the apartheid state, building a legacy of speaking up for the underdog and vulnerable in the process.

Yet, at the same time, she was fighting battles of her own in the courts. Because of laws propagating the separation of amenities between the races, Navi Pillay was barred from entering judges’ chambers.

Not only that, white law firms ­refused to hire her on the grounds that their white employees could not take instructions from a black person.

But this did not stop her from achieving a number of firsts.

Pillay (70) became the first black woman to serve in the High Court of South Africa after she was ­appointed by former president Nelson Mandela in 1994.

She also served on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda between 1997 and 2005. She was the only female judge for the first four years of the tribunal.

In 2003, she was elected to the first-ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division.

In August 2008, she was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, an institution she has described as “the voice of the ­victim everywhere”.

Last week, Pillay jetted into the country to deliver a lecture on the scourge that for years divided the people of this country and subjected millions to the inhumanity and indignity of racial discrimination.

She was the keynote speaker at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Annual Lecture in Joburg. The ­lecture, organised by struggle ­veteran Ahmed Kathrada’s ­foundation, was titled Towards a World Free of Racial Discrimination: ­Global Progress and Local Challenges since the 2001 World Conference against Racism.

A slightly built woman, she looks much younger than her 70 years. There was no mistaking her razor-sharp mind while she was fielding questions from journalists during a brief media conference shortly ­after delivering her lecture.

She answered questions on the sensitive issues of human rights abuses in Syria, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya and South Africa with careful diplomacy but sharp ­rebuke.

But it proved impossible to pin down Pillay for an interview as she quickly jetted off on one of her journeys across the globe shortly thereafter.

In an interview published by the UN shortly after her appointment as High Commissioner in 2008, she recalled that after writing an essay as a 16-year-old, which dealt with the role of South African women in educating children on human rights, her community made donations to send “this promising, but impecunious, young woman to university”.

Kathrada said Pillay, like many human-rights lawyers and doctors, took great risks to help political activists who found themselves at the mercy of apartheid agents.

Kathrada said: “We need to recognise the contribution of the lawyers and the doctors.”

In a trial under the Terrorism Act, Pillay formed part of the defence team that exposed the use of torture and unlawful methods of interrogation.

Kathrada recalled an incident in 1973, when Pillay brought a successful application against the authorities at Robben Island Prison.

Kathrada was imprisoned on the island together with Mandela, ­Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others between 1964 and the mid-80s.

The case dealt with the allocation of rights and privileges for political prisoners incarcerated on the island.

“I remember she won that case and it brought about many, many changes for the prisoners,” said Kathrada.

Pillay continues to be an outspoken advocate for human rights and her lecture was warmly received by her respondents at the event, the Reverend Frank Chikane, former director-general in the office of the president, and former Cabinet minister Barbara Hogan.

She expressed her concern about the xenophobic attacks that left more than 60 people dead in South Africa three years ago.

“South Africans must act like any other citizens of the international community. They bear no greater or lesser obligation for human rights.

“But the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle in this country means that many continue to look to South Africa for guidance and inspiration in the anti-discrimination movement,” she said.

“We must not lose sight of the moral sentiment and core values of equality which inspired us in years past. We must go back to the roots of our freedom and our beliefs.”

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