Priscilla Jana: Lawyer and diplomat who fought apartheid in S Africa

Human rights activist regarded her role as extending beyond just being an attorney

Priscilla Jana: served as South African ambassador to Ireland between 2006 and 2011. Photograph: David Sleator

Priscilla Jana: served as South African ambassador to Ireland between 2006 and 2011. Photograph: David Sleator


Priscilla Jana

Born: December 5th 1943 Died: October 10th, 2020

Priscilla Jana, who served as South African ambassador to Ireland between 2006 and 2011, was a forthright human rights lawyer whose client list embraced both the fabled elite and the foot soldiers of the struggle against apartheid. At times she crossed the line in between the law courts and the clandestine war to end white minority rule.

Jana died on October 10th at a care home in Pretoria. She was 76. Ismael Momoniat, a senior government official and family friend, did not specify the cause but said her death was not related to the coronavirus pandemic.

From a family of middle-class Indian immigrants, Jana occupied an ambiguous space in the regimented society imposed by the South African government’s policies of racial separation, which became ever more pervasive after the whites-only National Party took power in 1948, when she was four.

Her status was defined by laws that consigned many people of Asian heritage to segregated neighbourhoods, schools and amenities – apart from the white minority and the black majority alike. In her early years, she said, she felt unsure about her identity.

That changed when she was 28 and heard a speech by activist leader Steve Biko. “I listened to his definitions and was amazed,” she wrote in Fighting for Mandela, a memoir published in 2016. “I realised that you didn’t have to be African to call yourself black.”

“Until now I had been aware of the vacuum in me, not belonging to black or white, just being ‘different,’” she continued. “Now I could be part of a group. I had found solidarity, and I felt uplifted.”

“At last,” she wrote, “I knew where I really belonged.”

Jana’s death further depletes the ranks of a cohort of legal veterans whose civil and human rights cases were milestones in the effort to bring democracy to South Africa, which it achieved with elections in 1994.

‘Fearless and gutsy’

“She was fearless and gutsy in supporting the many activists detained and harassed by the security police during the apartheid years,” Momoniat, an anti-apartheid campaigner, said in a text message

Unlike some lawyers, who saw their contribution to South Africa’s destiny in strictly juridical terms, Jana regarded her role not simply as an attorney but as an activist linked to insurgents seeking the violent overthrow of apartheid. On one occasion, she said, she carried a cache of AK47 assault rifles from Soweto on behalf of a client to prevent the guns from falling into the hands of the security police.

During business hours, she worked on human rights cases, she wrote, but at night she joined activists “in an underground cell, plotting to bring down the government of the day”.

One of her most celebrated cases involved a 22-year-old insurgent, Solomon Mahlangu, who was sentenced to death and hanged despite an international outcry after being found guilty of murdering two white people. Mahlangu had not fired the lethal shots; he was convicted under so-called common purpose laws, which made perceived complicity in a crime just as punishable as the crime itself.

She wrote in her memoir that she was the last of Mahlangu’s supporters to see him alive on the night before his execution in April 1979, and that he had asked her to pass on a message to his followers: “Tell my people that I love them. Tell them to continue the fight. My blood will nourish the tree that bears the fruits of freedom.”

Sense of injustice

Devikarani Priscilla Sewpal was born on December 5th, 1943, in the town of Westville on the fringes of the South African port city of Durban, on the Indian Ocean. She was the second of three children of Hansrani Sewpal and her husband, Hansraj, a high school teacher with a keen sense of the injustices of apartheid.

While studying in Mumbai, India – then known as Bombay – she met and later married Reg Jana, a fellow South African student. They divorced in 1989. She was later briefly married to a fellow lawyer, Reagan Jacobus; that marriage, too, ended in divorce, in the early 1990s.

Jana is survived by a daughter, Albertina Jana Molefe, and a son, Shivesh Sewpal.

While her parents had initially wanted her to become a physician, she switched to studying the law in South Africa and graduated in 1974. She then joined a firm run by Ismail Ayob, a lawyer of Indian descent whose clients included the Mandela family.

In 1977, she travelled to Robben Island to visit Nelson Mandela, a client. It was the first of many trips she would make there on behalf of detainees.

“At one time I represented every political prisoner on Robben Island,” she wrote.

Jana was an ANC lawmaker from 1994 to 1999. She was later a diplomat for nine years, serving as the South African ambassador to the Netherlands and Ireland before joining the South African Human Rights Commission as its deputy chairwoman in 2017.

But she seemed dissatisfied with the way the post-apartheid authorities had run the country. “We finally put apartheid, colonialism and slavery behind us after 350 years, but we are not yet reaping the rewards of that great fight,” she wrote in her memoir. “It is going to take much longer.” – New York Times