Priscilla Jana made the world a better place

Two longtime colleagues and friends pay tribute to the renowned human rights lawyer, whose legacy is one of a fierce, compassionate and loyal fighter for justice for all.

Devikarani Priscilla Jana, who passed away on 10 October at the age of 76, was a remarkable activist, lawyer, member of Parliament, ambassador, colleague, friend and confidante, hostess of note, and mother. 

In the dark days of apartheid, the world was a frightening, hostile, brutal and very precarious place. As a human rights lawyer, Priscilla entered people’s lives at their most vulnerable, arriving armed with legal resources that could make fear subside and the darkness lift. Swathed in sparkling silks and followed by wafts of perfume, she had a smile that was both warm and formidable at the same time. 

We will not reiterate the many accolades and tributes that she has so rightly received as a lawyer and a trailblazer for women in the legal arena, nor repeat the numerous stories that bear witness to her ferocious and fearless belief in human justice. But indulge us this one: once, she stared down an infamous security policeman known for his brutality. She was bringing an application for the release of a client who was abducted from Swaziland and brought into South Africa, and had gone to the police station to get information. When the security policeman extended his hand to shake hers, she refused, saying: “I know what that hand has done. I will not shake it.”

The impact of her work

To say Priscilla has had an impact on the lives of so many is an understatement. But many of her clients had an impact on her. The execution of Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu changed Priscilla forever. It fortified her resolve and deepened her compassion. 

As an attorney with the legal firm Ismail Ayob and Associates, she represented Mahlangu – a young ANC cadre who was convicted of murder and executed in 1979. Priscilla mobilised the world to prevent his execution, which sadly went ahead. She was at his side as long as she could be, until his execution. This trauma she carried with her forever, using it not to fuel hatred but to fight harder.

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Her clients included prominent people, from Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Govan Mbeki to Walter and Albertina Sisulu and Cyril Ramaphosa. They also included students held under the various states of emergency and charged under the Terrorism Act. She challenged illegal detentions and defended schoolchildren charged with public violence. 

Irrespective of who the client was or the nature of the charge, Priscilla gave each client her total commitment and worked tirelessly for their acquittal, their release from detention or a reduction in sentence. Clients called on her knowing that whatever the hour, she would wake up a judge to bring an urgent interdict, or rush to the police station to demand their release and defend them when they appeared in court. Much has been written about her courage, commitment and how she challenged apartheid laws (in some cases successfully), finding loopholes and legal points that could be used. 

A familial approach

Priscilla first joined Shun Chetty, a civil and human rights lawyer, in practice. She then set up her own practice, Attorney Priscilla Jana and Associates, when he had to flee the country.

To be part of Priscilla Jana and Associates meant you were part of the family – in connection and belief system. The staff of the firm reflected the principles and ideals she believed in. We came from different religious, cultural and social backgrounds, sharing our religious and cultural festivals.

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When it was Diwali and Eid, we all looked forward to the mouth-watering sweetmeats that would follow the Hindu and Muslim festivals, the apple and honey for the Jewish New Year and the Christmas cake and pudding that marked the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth. It was not just about the food, it was about the sharing and openness that our specific traditions brought to our lives as a community in the office. Like a family we argued, we disagreed, we laughed, but most importantly, we celebrated our joys together and commiserated on our sorrows. 

The office was a home and safe haven for Priscilla’s clients, a place where people could meet, share, debate and disagree about ideologies and strategies, and receive empathy and consideration. She firmly believed that all people are equal and should be respected and treated with dignity. Her clients reflected the broad political spectrum, including the ANC, Azapo, the Black Consciousness movement, the PAC and the religious community, among others. Priscilla embraced humanity.

Politics and presence

Her office was a place of deep politics. In the 1980s, there was a demonstration in the city centre, close to our office next to the Small Street arcade. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and rushed to arrest demonstrators as they scattered – some of whom ran into our office with the police hot on their heels. We were able to get them out through the fire escape, and when the police banged on the door to come in, to their frustration and anger they could find no one. Our receptionist sat at her desk, typing away, and did not move a muscle. When the police left, our receptionist stood up, and from under her long skirt stepped a young boy of not more than 16 years whom she had hidden.

Priscilla’s visits to Robben Island were legendary. She would arrive on the island in her wonderful vivid bright purple or green or pink saris, bringing brightness to the grey-tinged space. She would walk down the gangplank laden with packets of fruit, chocolates and biscuits so that the many clients we were visiting would not go hungry. When she arrived, the warders on duty would rush to help her down the gangplank and help carry all the parcels, so anxious were they not to be reprimanded by her. 

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Her interaction with our clients on Robben Island covered the broad spectrum, from legal matters to family matters and visits, arranging bursaries, and personal issues. She could be confided in and trusted, and clients were reassured that whatever the request, she would do everything she could to sort it out. 

As a hostess, Priscilla did not prepare a meal – she prepared a feast. Her curries and beautiful table presentations were legendary. She was well known for her words “you must eat before you leave”. This is best illustrated when she successfully challenged the detention of the late Albertina Sisulu in the 1980s. Priscilla went to pick her up from the police station, where she was held in the middle of the night, insisting that Sisulu first come home with her to have “something to eat”. She included her many clients, colleagues, friends and family in her annual Diwali celebrations and her daughter Tina’s birthdays. It became an opportunity for diverse people to meet and relax. 

Against status and wealth

What made Priscilla truly great was that she did not seek status, authority or wealth, but stayed true to her principles and ideals all her life. She was compassionate, considerate and caring. She never refused support or help to anyone, be it legally or personally. A case in point is under the 1984 state of emergency when hundreds of people were detained, many of whom were only children. Messages were received from detainees to let their families know where they were, often with scanty information. Either Priscilla or any other staff member would be sent to locate the families, often going from door to door to find the family and let them know where their loved one was being detained.

In 1994, Priscilla went to Parliament, where she made a contribution on several committees, tirelessly contributing and fulfilling her responsibilities. As ambassador, first to the Netherlands and then Ireland, she continued to make her mark. More recently, she was the deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, where she dedicated herself to advancing the rights of the Khoi and San, integral to human decency. Whichever position she filled, Priscilla continued to promote our common humanity, that we are one community, and her pride in being a South African.

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As a mother, Priscilla’s love for Tina and nephew Shivesh, who joined her when she took up her first ambassadorial position and whom she regarded as her son, was endless. She loved them both with every inch of her heart, as she did in more recent years her grandchildren, four-year-old Aleysha and six-month-old Renilwe. 

Priscilla gave of herself to fulfil her quest for a better life for all. She gave each and every client, irrespective of their status, the same consideration, care and concern. It is for this reason that she was regarded as “the people’s lawyer”. She was deeply committed to upholding human rights and was instrumental in contributing to the formulation of the Bill of Rights that underpins our Constitution. 

The greatest tribute we can give Priscilla is to cherish her ideals and principles, continue to uphold them and work to keep them alive. How privileged we were to know her, to have her as a friend, have her in our lives and be part of hers. There are no words to describe this wonderful, beautiful person, beautiful inside and out. 

The world is richer for having had her in it. Thank you, Priscilla Jana, thank you.

As an activist, Ilona Tip first met Jana 47 years ago when she was campaigning against the introduction of the tri-cameral parliamentary system. Lesley Hudson joined the firm in the early 1980s as its IT specialist.

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