NAVI PILLAY: A TRIUMPH OF TRUE TALENT AGAINST ALL ODDS
In terms of human capital South Africa has an enviable abundance of wealth that she is not fully aware of. As the world’s ambassadors came together to bid farewell to Navi Pillay, the outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, they recognised her great contribution to human rights in a destabilized world. Widely acknowledged as the world’s most powerful and effective champion of human rights for the past six years, South African born Navi Pillay has been a force to reckon with. She wisely asserts that there can be no lasting peace unless there is justice. Her motto, Speaking Truth to Power. is an injunction which she proudly claims she learnt in SA.
In her six=year term of office she has had to contend with violent outlaws across the world, from northern Syria and Iraq to Sri Lanka and Gaza and many other places. Sri Lanka is perhaps the one that has tested most strongly her courage and determination. She has also incurred vitriolic fury from both sides in the Gaza wars and been described by the Syrian ambassador to the UN as “a lunatic”.
The US has never agreed to her requests to look into what she calls “the many issues that trouble us” in Syria, with, in particular drone strikes and targeted killings, while somehow the Chinese could never find a suitable date for her to pay a visit. Although she has had to contend with gender and ethnic chauvinism, racism and bigotry, she has succeeded in keeping the pressure of accountability alive.
Judge Navaneetham Pillay, universally known as Navi, sits as comfortably in her Durban home in the heart of a previously Indian area as she did in her United Nations office. She has the ability to dine with the Rothschilds, the Clintons and the Queen of England and yet enjoy the daal rotis that I have brought for her. Perhaps this is her overriding strength. In her meteoric rise to fame, which resulted in her being responsible for shining a spotlight on human rights abuses from around the world, she seems not to have forgotten her people or her roots. She relates with ease, confidence and warmth and shares her accolades with her family and friends more out of a sense of wanting to share the joys of success than bragging about her accomplishments. “The Palestinians gave me this gold
medal”, she proudly shows me. Her numerous awards are worthy of a personal museum of exhibits.
How did the infamous apartheid system allow such talent to surface?
Navi Pillay believes in the motto that “it takes a village to raise a child”. In recalling her formative days at school, she says: “It was through the endeavours of my teachers, who kindled in me the appreciation of English literature and drama that I was able to overcome my impoverished background and aspire to greater levels.” “When I needed a bursary to study at university, the entire Clairwood community raised funds for a bursary for me.” Navi was born in 1941 in a Tamil-speaking family of seven children in a poor neighbourhood reserved for Indians in Clairwood, Durban, where there were dusty unpaved roads and no sewage system. Although international press releases describe her as a daughter of a bus driver, her father was highly educated in Tamil literature. Growing up in the 1950s, Navi was always the proverbial tallest poppy in the field, defying any attempt to lop her down to size. As a young girl I watched her shine in the community and was often in awe of this rough diamond. She excelled as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a Clairwood School production and, although she describes this area as being a slum, it was never a slum in so far as the cultural richness of the people was concerned. Supported by her local Indian community with donations, she graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965. A huge achievement at a time when females of colour had significant political, cultural and economic obstacles to overcome in the search for higher education. Her prodigious talent saw her attending Harvard Law School, where she obtained an LLM in 1982 and a Doctor of Judicial Science degree in 1988. It is little wonder then that her appointment as Human Rights Commissioner is a great honour for Africa in general, South Africa in particular, and women all over the world.
Her recent inclusion, in 2008, at number 63 on the list of Forbes magazine’s choice of the 100 most powerful women in the world, which ranged from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, is phenomenal. Navi at 73, is something of a star among international legal experts. Fortune or a lack of it created other opportunities that jostled her into uncharted waters. In 1967, Navi became the first female to open her own law practice in Durban. “I had no alternative as no law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a non-white.”
Her life was characterised by a pattern of resistance to the proverbial glass ceiling imposed by the apartheid regime. In Durban she co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1985 when she was a student at Harvard she co-founded the international women’s rights group Equality Now. It was this link which gave her a platform from which to launch her international profile later on.
For close on three decades, she was the first black attorney to fight for the rights of prisoners on Robben Island. Her resolve in doing so was deepened by the fact that amongst them was her husband, whom she protected by preventing the police from using unlawful methods of interrogation against him. In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners on the Island, including Mandela, to have access to lawyers. After Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, Pillay became the first black female justice to be appointed to the South African Supreme
Court of Appeals. It is ironic that as a nonwhite lawyer under the apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter judges’ chambers. Her tenure on the Court was short, however, as she was soon elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The tribunal, based in Arusha, Tanzania, was a landmark experiment, almost half a century after the retributive justice of Nuremberg. It attempted to move beyond the harsh and ultimately limited measures of those post-World War II war crimes courts by realising, in Pillay’s words, that “in post-conflict situations the restoration of normalcy requires comprehensive strategies, including options for transitional justice, as well as redress and remedy for the victims.” Her tenure on the ICTR is perhaps best remembered for her role in the landmark trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which established that rape and sexual assault could constitute acts of genocide. Pillay said in an interview, “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime”. In February 2003, she was elected to the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division. She was elected to a sixyear term, but resigned in August 2008 in order to take up her position with the UN.
As one wades through the charmed life of this amazing woman one wonders what forces shape people and what circumstances lead to others. There is a thread that runs through her life: a rare combination of ambition, drive and innate intelligence mixed with a deep sense of cultural identity and a sound value system. Such personalities are able to overcome poverty, through a hunger for education; overcome prejudices through an innate sense of their worth and reach great heights through sheer hard work and determination. Her mottoes are compelling: “You can have no lasting peace unless you have justice” and “victims should be allowed to speak loudly”.
This daughter of Africa is indeed worthy of emulation. Prince Said of Jordan her successor will find that he has very large boots to fill especially since she has been widely acclaimed for having briefed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessors combined.
Dr. Devi Rajab is a respected South African
journalist and former Dean of Student
Development at UKZN and the author of