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Priscilla Jana, Lawyer Who Battled Apartheid, Is Dead at 76


Priscilla Jana, a forthright human rights lawyer whose client list embraced both the fabled elite and the foot soldiers of the struggle against apartheid — and who acknowledged crossing a line in her native South Africa between the law courts and the clandestine war to end white minority rule — died on Oct. 10 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 Covid pandemic.

Ms. 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 4 years old.

Ms. Jana was descended from a family of middle-class Indian immigrants, and her status was defined by laws that consigned many people of Asian heritage to segregated neighborhoods, 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 the activist leader Steve Biko. “I listened to his definitions and was amazed,” she wrote in “Fighting for Mandela,” a memoir published in 2016. “I realized 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.”

Ms. Jana spoke of the emotional turmoil inspired by her friendships with Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as the couple were torn apart in the early years of South Africa’s emergence from apartheid.

She had gotten to know them as their lawyer when Mr. Mandela was serving his 27-year imprisonment, much of it on the Robben Island penal settlement off Cape Town.

At the same time, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela became the target of arrest, detention, solitary confinement, harassment and ultimately banishment to a segregated Black township outside the remote village of Brandfort in what was then called the Orange Free State, a profoundly conservative province of South Africa.

Such were the racial distinctions there that people classified as Indian, like Ms. Jana, were not even permitted to stay overnight.

In her memoir, Ms. Jana said she believed that Ms. Madikizela-Mandela had “contributed more than almost any other individual to the anti-apartheid struggle that consumed our lives for so many years.”

But when Ms. Madikizela-Mandela returned from Brandfort, she became an increasingly radical figure, appealing to young protesters who took to the streets to challenge the authorities in the mid-1980s.

She was sentenced to six years in prison for kidnap and assault after the brutal murder of a teenage boy, Stompie Moeketsi. While the sentence was later reduced, “this shocking incident taints Winnie and the A.N.C,” Ms. Jana wrote, referring to the African National Congress, long the dominant political force among South Africa’s Black majority. “She had allowed herself and — more importantly — the anti-apartheid movement to be dragged in the dirt for all the world to see.”

Ms. Jana also took issue with Mr. Mandela’s decision, after his release in 1990, to stand by his wife in court hearings in the Moeketsi case, before the couple formally separated in 1992. (They divorced in 1996.) But Mr. Mandela dismissed her concerns. “That was his style,” she wrote. “He was a chieftain.”

She faulted him, too, for signaling his readiness to reconcile with former adversaries in the white minority. “I sometimes felt that one could go too far with forgiveness,” Ms. Jana wrote.

Her 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.

“She was fearless and gutsy in supporting the many activists detained and harassed by the security police during the apartheid years,” Mr. 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, Ms. 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 AK-47 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Devikarani Priscilla Sewpal was born on Dec. 5, 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.

Ms. 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 traveled to Robben Island to visit with 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.

After the Mahlangu case, she opened her own practice in late 1979, but within weeks she was handed a so-called banning order, subjecting her to overnight curfew, permitting her to meet with only one person at a time and restricting her movements and her ability to speak in public.

Ms. Jana had been drawn to the Black Consciousness movement, which opposed the multiracialism of the A.N.C., and she was part of an effort to prove that two white doctors who had been assigned by the police to look after the imprisoned Steve Biko had acted improperly. Mr. Biko died in custody in 1977. In 1985, a disciplinary panel found that both men, Ivor Lang and Benjamin Tucker, had behaved improperly. Dr. Tucker was stripped of his medical qualifications; Dr. Lang was reprimanded.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela walked free. Four years later, in the country’s first fully democratic elections, he was elected president.

Ms. Jana was an A.N.C. 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.”


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