/ 24 June 2021

Q&A Sessions: Judge Navi Pillay, a woman of many firsts

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Speaking truth: Judge Navi Pillay has spent her life seeking justice: fighting against the apartheid system, sitting on the Rwanda tribunal, and in her capacity as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Judge Navi Pillay talks to Athandiwe Saba about being the daughter of a bus driver, a little girl who swore at school, and the pressure of being a leading woman in the world while being a mother at home

You are a woman of many firsts: opening  your own law firm and attending Harvard. You are also an expert in international criminal law. What is one of the highlights of such an illustrious career? 

Well, there are many. Being the judge president of the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was one. My friends in NGOs told me, “If you don’t accept, there won’t be a woman on the bench.” So I stayed there for eight-and-a-half years. My children were at university already.

The brave witnesses from Rwanda, mainly women who had nothing to gain, came at great risk to themselves to relive this whole situation. [It helped me] to understand what the role was about and why the Rwandans are seeking justice. So I’m very happy with the major decisions that I participated in. 

Another milestone was the two judgments that the world now acknowledges were groundbreaking. We found that rape and sexual violence constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. These had never been prosecuted before. What happens to women in conflicts and wars was taken for granted as collateral damage: something that happens or trophies that men can collect if they fought very well. No, this is a crime, and you’re going to get life imprisonment for this.

It was such hard work. I thought of giving up every day, I wished I didn’t have to do it. Sometimes I would just weep because you’re trying to prepare when at home, [but] there’s no power, candlelight, and the mosquitoes chewing you up. It was hard work. I have been acknowledged all over the world. I have 17 honorary doctorates. 

The other milestone is the media case. In this case, it was radio RTLM [Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines]. It was the most powerful radio station in Rwanda. According to all the evidence, if it hadn’t been for that radio station, and its messaging, the genocide wouldn’t have spread all over the country. So here we find a negative media playing a terrible role. The owner and the journalist of this radio station were convicted of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment. And, of course, that shocks journalists and the media — but even the journalists agree that in this particular situation, there was direct incitement to violence, and that the judgment was appropriate.  

What was it like going to Harvard and getting a doctorate there during the ’80s as a black woman from apartheid South Africa?

Well, you’re quite right to focus on that, because none of us had that kind of opportunity before. I was in the segregated university in Natal, where the non-white students were taught in the potato warehouse. My father was a bus driver. So that’s my background on why it was such a shock to me to see this wealthy university. They even had free coffee at the café for everybody. Things like that impressed me. The wastage of food; the parties they would have for students and others. So the wealth impressed me. 

But first, let me say that at the time in 1981 I had just finished the ANC trial of Harry Gwala and others, and I went to visit them on Robben Island. I was heartbroken because we lost the appeal and we knew that on the evidence they shouldn’t have been convicted. So they encouraged me to take our court reports to the US and speak to judges to see whether they would have delivered a conviction on evidence like that. They put the idea in my head. 

Studying law was quite easy for me and I got very good grades in my master’s as well. I came back home, worked for four years and said I wanted to do the doctorate. Harvard only selected seven people from the whole world each year to do the doctorate. My other lawyer colleagues said to me, “What do you want to do all this for? You know, it’s not like you can charge more fees.” And I said to them, “You see, you use your money to buy Mercedes Benzes. I want to invest in my education one day.”

I want you to take me back to a young girl on the streets of Clairwood in Durban …

I didn’t spend days thinking about things I don’t have. You played with children outside.  You put the empty milk cans on top of each other and hit it with the ball. Ah, yes, we had great fun with children of all race groups. We weren’t even aware of racism except for whites towards you. 

One of my earliest memories: we had the bucket system, and my father went to ask the driver of the mobile truck whether we could have an extra bucket because there were so many people living in our yard. The man said “No, you can’t.” There was an altercation and my father swore at him and said “Yeah, that’s why you’re only good enough to drive a shit truck.” It shocked me: my father telling off a white person. So it was like every other child in South Africa. You grow up, seeing apartheid all around you and seeing your parents being humiliated. 

Once I got into trouble because I had sworn at another child, I’m talking about “mabeech”. I’d heard my mother use it against the neighbour. I didn’t know what the word meant. The child then complained to the teacher and I was hauled up in front of the class. I could still visualise the anger and shock of the teachers. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “I wonder what it means? It must be a bad word.” 

You know, we could have had more happiness and hugs from our parents. We didn’t get all that — but loads of encouragement to get on with your schoolwork. 

My mother never went to school because her father had said to her “If you go to school, you learn to write love letters to boys. Therefore, you can’t go to school.” 

What is the favourite meal you looked forward to your mother cooking?  

Curries are obviously my favourite. We were brought up on that, but also oats porridge was your daily breakfast. And so even today I love simple food. Like many people in my generation, I could not be bothered by these fancy restaurants where they put a big plate in front of you and you have to look at the squiggles of food.

Did you learn how to cook these simple meals?

They were very strict with us as teenagers. Oh my God, you can’t leave the house. You can’t have a boyfriend. Oh no. And you can’t sing love songs — you have to sing religious songs. And all the restrictions they have against girls and women is what I understand. My resentment against the rules that applied to the girls but not to my brothers grew. There were rules you had to clean and cook. It was hard work. You know, I’m on my knees and polishing the stoep with the red polish.

What do you do when you wake up in the morning? 

I’m here in Jo’burg now to help my daughter because she just had a baby — best news in the world. And I can do that now because I’m retired. I love listening to music and news is a priority. Obviously, I do yoga. I have done yoga my whole life. It’s helped me with physical health, but also mental health to handle the stress and strain. 

Being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was one of the most difficult tasks. In all those years in Switzerland without sunshine, I suffered. We take it for granted the amazing weather we have here. So I value everything in life. I particularly like Jo’burg where people greet each other and smile. Unfortunately, we don’t do that in Durban. 

You’re a judge and also a human rights activist. Some of the work that you’ve done is criticising countries and their leaders for human rights abuses. How do you cope with the backlash? 

So you hit the nail on the head about the challenges of being High Commissioner for Human Rights. And you’re right, because it’s very political — most countries would like you to go criticise their enemies, but not themselves or their friends. They don’t want you to look in their own backyard; they want you looking at faraway places. The UN created this post because of civil society demands. It’s not like governments woke up one day and decided, “Okay, yeah, we need more accountability here. Let’s have a High Commissioner for Human Rights, scrutinising all of us.”

When I came on board in 2008, I know many people said I had a lot of courage in taking up issues. I think that comes from our South African experience in confronting apartheid and speaking to the truth. We had like 10 offices in various countries — not a single one of them was headed by a black person. Not a single one of them was headed by a woman, a black woman. Now, because of my South African experience, I would notice this. One day, I said to them, “I will not tolerate apartheid in my office. I’m going to do something about it.” But it was so difficult because of entrenched rights. 

Does being a powerful judge make you a powerful mom and grandma?

Please. They don’t care that you’re a powerful lawyer, or you’re busy with major cases. As soon as you enter the house, it’s, “Mom, we are hungry.”

 I have two girls: neither of them did law — they said they could see that we are working too hard and not bringing in any money. So one went into business management, and she’s working in the US. My other daughter works for the city here in Johannesburg. 

They love their life — they are allowed freedom to express their opinions. You know, let me tell you, as an educated mother you definitely have the skills to bring up your children better. They get the love and attention; they get the direction without you dictating to them. They have plenty of choices. 

My grandson, very early on, told his mother that I was very strict. I totally realised, we older people, we don’t smile enough. We don’t play games with them. I wish I could do all that. But let me tell you, the joy that children and grandchildren give you, they are the most important — and this is why when we have an opportunity to make change for the better [we must take it].