It is with sadness that the Foundation of Human Rights (FHR) learnt of the passing away of yet another anti-apartheid struggle stalwart and human rights lawyer Priscilla Jana who, together with the late Advocate George Bizos represented, among others, former President Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Madikizela Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name but a few.
Those of us who were lucky enough to be associated with her firm Priscilla Jana and Associates either as candidate attorneys or professional staff, will always remember her as this feisty lawyer who bucked the trend by appearing in public and at court in a traditional sari. The FHR Director Hanif Vally and Ahmed Mayet had the privilege of working with Priscilla Jana. She carried herself with such decorum and dignity that apartheid era magistrates grudgingly acknowledged her presence and treated her with respect whenever she appeared before them.
Priscilla Jana gave new meaning to the phrase “open door policy” in that clients literally came off the street for assistance without going through the formality of making an appointment. It was well known in activist circles that Priscilla Jana would not turn away those in need of legal assistance but that she ensured that all the clients received the best possible legal representation without having to pay for it themselves.
She had this empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden because she herself experienced the brutality of the apartheid state when in 1979, soon after opening her firm, she was slapped with a 5 year banning order in terms of which she was confined to her house in Lenasia between 6pm and 6 am, could not leave Johannesburg or be in the company of more than one person. She described the banning order as a death sentence in her memoirs because at the time she felt that her practice would not survive the banning order.
She emerged stronger from her banning order and in 1984 she took the South African Medical and Dental Council on review for its treatment of Steven Bantu Biko who died in police custody. The court ordered the Council to hold an investigation into the conduct of the doctors who were eventually found guilty of disgraceful conduct.
In her memoirs she refers to the poignant conversation with Solomon Mahlangu who was sentenced to death for his part in a shootout with security forces. She was the last person to visit Solomon Mahlangu on death row and took his final message which is engraved on his tombstone.
“Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight. My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom”.
In 1994 she was appointed a member of parliament by the ANC where she served with distinction in highlighting issues faced by women. She also served as ambassador to the Netherlands and Ireland. On her return to South Africa she was appointed as a Commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission.
Hamba kahle comrade Priscilla Jana.