Personal history | South Africa

Law as a tool for freedom

From the South African slum to the top of the United Nations: Judge Navi Pillay reflects on an eventful life

An elderly lady looks into the camera with a subtle smile. She has black hair, wears a sweater with pattern in orange and white and sports hoop earrings in silver

The South African human rights lawyer Navi Pillay was, among other things, High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.


My childhood smelled of my mother's Indian dishes. When the fragrance of sautéed coriander and chilli hits my nose, I immediately develop an appetite. I grew up in the 1940s in Clairwood, a suburb of the South African city of Durban.

My grandparents came from India and toiled on a sugar cane farm for five years until they were finally allowed to buy a piece of land. Clairwood was explicitly designated for people of Indian descent and it was quite neglected: the roads were full of potholes, there were no toilets and no sewage system.

Many of my schoolmates had to leave school early and enter arranged marriages. Fortunately for me, my father, a bus driver, also wanted to educate his daughters. I did well in school and won several prizes. That prompted my teachers to collect money in our neighbourhood to make it possible for me to study.

From 1960 onwards, non-whites like me were allowed to attend university in South Africa for the first time, but we were separated from white people. I studied in Durban Westville in a warehouse. Downstairs was full of potatoes and we studied upstairs. The frightening atmosphere of that time is still very present in my mind. Racist violence was part of everyday life and many students were arrested. At that time I resolved to use my mind, work my way up and make a difference.

“In 1995, I received a surprise phone call: “Hold on, it's the President.“ At first I thought someone was kidding me, but it was actually Mandela”

I went to law school. Normally law firms recruit the students with the best degrees straight from university. In my final year, that was not the case because I, the Indian girl, had the best grades. So I went from firm to firm looking for work, but they all turned me down: “We can't ask a white secretary to take instructions from you. And what if you get pregnant?“ However, my mantra was, “If one door is slammed in your face, you have to find another.“ That's why I started my own law firm, the first non-white woman in South Africa.

In my decades as a lawyer, I defended several anti-apartheid activists. I was the only woman lawyer to enter the notorious Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Every visit to the prison island was terrifying. The most brilliant minds of our country were locked up there. Many activists were mistreated and tortured, legal protection was non-existent.

Later, however, all the cases of abuse and torture we collected there were used by the anti-apartheid movement as evidence against the regime. In 1994, we finally gained a democratic South Africa. Like all my compatriots, I remember very clearly the moment Mandela was released from Robben Island.

In 1995, I received a surprise phone call: “Hold on, it's the president.“ At first I thought someone was playing a joke on me, but it was actually Mandela. He announced that I had been appointed by the United Nations General Assembly to be a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

“I am convinced that people who have experienced violence and discrimination, like me, can also draw something positive from these experiences“

During my time at the Tribunal, I was involved in several landmark judgments: During the genocide against Tutsis, sexualised violence was systematically committed. But they were never convicted because there was no internationally recognised definition of rape at the time. So we worked out one ourselves and it is still valid today.

The second case was about the media. All the evidence pointed to the fact that without the hate messages of one radio station, the Rwandan genocide would never have covered the whole country. We therefore argued that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. It is subject to the restriction that there must be no incitement to violence.

In 2003, I was elected to the panel of judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague - and in 2008, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed me as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Looking at my CV, I certainly sound like a very ambitious person. Yet I did not apply for any of these high posts! Looking back on my career, I am proud of my work, even though it was often very hard.

And although I have listened to many stories of people who have experienced terrible things over the years, I remain an optimist. I am convinced that people who, like me, have experienced violence and discrimination can also draw something positive from these experiences.

My life experience under apartheid has trained me to recognise injustice and to remain true to my values. Injustice can only be overcome if you take action against it.

As told to Gundula Haage