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Interviewee : Judge Navaneetham Pillay

Interviewer : Vino Reddy

Date : 11 August 2002

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VR: Okay. Once you completed your degree, where did you serve your Articles?
NP: Well, once I completed my degree I was married in January of 1965, so that means waiting five years to get married.
VR: And whom did you marry?
NP: I married Gaby Pillay. His full name is Paranjothi Anthony Pillay, and his background is he grew up in the Hlobane Mines, the colliery; so of course, his favourite food was the hard porridge that the miners used to eat. He spoke absolutely fluent, beautiful Zulu. And he was at the university with the help of his brothers because he was an orphan. And he started teaching and later became a lawyer and we ended up as partners in the same law firm. So we married in January 1965, he started teaching and I served two years of Articles with Mr NT Naicker who was the secretary-general of the African National Congress, here in Durban. And he was banned and house-arrested, he could not leave his home, which meant that he sent me to cases in, outside Durban and to the rural areas. And I then picked up experience from day one, but also learnt firsthand the suffering of people and how everything was political. My first cases dealt with the forced removal of people from land. And one of the ways in which that was done was to confiscate the cattle of farmers in rural Natal for failing to dip their cattle. Or they would confiscate the cattle because they grazed onto white lands. And the farmers would explain that the best lands were fenced off and they were white lands and they had the rocks and stones and the cattle would naturally stray onto these grounds that were fenced off. So they were not only charged and fined or imprisoned but they also lost their cattle, the cattle were confiscated. And I gradually thought that you can’t defend these kind of matters in the courtroom because there was a political agenda here and no self-respecting lawyer can ignore that. I learnt many lessons from the clients themselves. These rural farmers would explain to me why, on principle grounds, they would refuse to have their cattle dipped because I would say, "Why don’t you just dip your cattle in there and then you are over with this case." And they would say no they would rather go to jail because the political movements had taken a stand on these issues and these poor farmers were paying huge sacrifices to stand by that principle.
VR: From what you have said so far your politicisation obviously began very early in your life. Did you at some stage join a political organisation?
NP: When I was at university I joined the Unity Movement. There were very many thinkers there and I was attracted to the Unity Movement because there were members of all race groups and young and old and they taught you to read and they got you to read the great philosophers and political writers. And they always, to my mind, appeared to be slightly to the left of the ANC. And they were against political stunts such as where you saw down an electric light pole and then you serve ten years in prison for that. And they felt we were more useful outside. A criticism of this Unity Movement was that they were armchair politicians, took no risks, and they were just theorists all the time. I struggled with that Movement ,of course, because this was all a learning process. Most of my friends were in the ANC and I liked what they were doing. And I didn’t like the controlling atmosphere in the Unity Movement. And the fact that they alienated themselves from many other people; we were all in the struggle together. There were differences of opinion but not excuses to become enemies with other people and I felt people in the Unity Movement were doing just that. Slight air of superiority and creating enemies all round and with regard to gender sensitivity, there was none. And I found that in all these liberatory movements. They felt liberation first and your gender liberation later. Which I felt was wrong, they were all controlled by men. And they didn’t think that raising women’s issues were integral to liberation. They felt it was a distraction from the liberation strategy. So it was a tremendous learning process but I was loyal to their ideas and still are [am], which were very clear that there should be a non-racial democracy. There should be votes for everyone; and there should be land distribution as part of the policy. And economic redistribution so that the power and resources should be controlled by people generally, and not an elitist group.
VR: Right. How did your family perceive your political affiliation?
NP: Out of fear, they discouraged us completely, because all
around they would see students being thrown into jail or
not being given any jobs. And because they were so poor
they would discourage us from any kind of involvement in
politics. And I recall once, my parents saying to me very
angrily that: "Do you think now that you are equal to the
Europeans? Is that what you have the presumption to
assert?" And I put it down to the fears that controlled
them. Maybe listening to them, to an extent, kept me out
of prison and enabled me to complete my education.
VR: Would you say that your politicisation had much to do
with your choice of career?
NP: Yes, I would say so. But let me just return to the parent’s fears. We lived in Clairwood and Clairwood was a victim of race riots in 1949 and that’s what caused the fear on part of the residents of Clairwood, including my parents. With me, firstly, when I was six-years old I was the victim of robbery. My mother had given me my father’s entire monthly wages, which was R5 to take to him. He was a bus driver I was supposed to meet him at the corner and hand this money to him. Meanwhile he had not asked for the money it was his conductor who had planned that ruse and he grabbed the money from my hand off he went. My mother beat me up for that. I don’t know why the victim gets beaten. Anyway, and I ended up giving evidence in court at the age of , (seven) six in the same Durban High Court where I many years later sat as a judge. And this individual was sentenced to three months imprisonment. But what really bugged me is that we didn’t get the R5 back and I felt so guilty as a child that I had caused the loss to my parents. But there just seemed to be a lack of justice and then I kept noticing that from primary school when I was in standard five I wrote an essay for Mr Poonan, Anchu Padayachee’s father who was doing his PhD, and asked school children to write essays on how we saw justice. And I gave an example of an imaginary court case where for the identical crime, a black man had a heavier sentence and a white man was acquitted. And I said that there was no justice for black people in this country. So maybe I was motivated by these reasons to pursue a career in law. At high school some teachers discouraged me and they said you know "You can only become a lawyer if your father is very well to do; or if there are lawyers in your family. But you are a bus driver’s daughter you shouldn’t even think about that." And when I completed my Articles under Mr NT Naicker then, of course, nobody would employ a young woman. And so I had triple burdens I was a woman, I was black, and I was poor. And so that’s why I started my own law practice. And I know that some colleagues said, “She’s very presumptuous to start a law practice.” So mainly, I think, what motivated me, and most of the other law students, is this injustice that we saw all around us. All the laws, which we regarded as immoral and unjust laws and that, we had to defend our people against those laws.
VR: Did your colleagues in the black legal fraternity support your decision to open a practice on your own?
NP: Yes they did. And when I first started, they would send me work so I would be busy in the criminal courts when some of our colleagues would call like at half past one to say, "Can you go to court at two o’clock because I am engaged in the other court." And there was great camaraderie and good spirit amongst us, we supported one another. And I will tell you in which way. Our African colleagues could not rent premises in the CBD and all our offices were in Grey Street because there was no way you can get into West Street or the other white areas. My husband, for instance, signed a lease for three African lawyers. He signed the lease, and of course, the landlords knew all about it. And we were helpful, we were all poor; we were all struggling; we would be very helpful to one another; report to each other on new cases and precedents and strategies. And exchange material so we were resource persons for another as well.
VR: At what stage in your very fledgling career as an attorney, at that stage, did you get your first taste of political work in terms of defending people for overtly political ‘offences’?
NP: My first case was when Phyllis Naidoo, who’s extremely well-known in the ANC circles, and she has written a book, she is also a lawyer, was charged for failing to report on a Monday. She was a banned person and she was required to report every Monday morning. She had her young baby whom she was nursing, she was studying the whole night for her law exams and she forgot to report the next morning, by Monday. And when she remembered it was three or four days later. She was charged for that, and she asked me to defend her. I had just opened practice for three or four months and I said to her, "Shouldn’t you get somebody more experienced?" But of course, Phyllis couldn’t afford a lawyer and I then represented her. At that time the sentence was one year, where they suspend most of it and people would serve four days. But poor Phyllis was required to serve seven days. But Phyllis being Phyllis, went into prison and came out with the actual accounts of the atrocities inside the women’s prison. So that took on another dimension of things we had to do. That was my first case. Before that I acted for my boss, Mr NT Naicker, who also was charged for failing to report; for the late Mr Dawood Seedat, who was the brother-in-law of Minister of Transport, Mr Omar. And he had failed to report and over there we produced medical reports that he was ill and couldn’t report. I felt it was so unreasonable for courts to have already determined that forgetting is not an excuse. So you can’t go to court and say I forgot, even though there was all these circumstances in Phyllis' case why it was so reasonable as to why she forgot. That was my first case, and after that was, you know, I can’t give you this in chronological order but in 1971, there were ten members of the Unity Movement were charged under the Terrorism Act. My husband Gaby Pillay was detained and so I went as a wife to the Security Police, shivering and weeping like any other wife, shocked by these events. Suddenly your husband is detained and the Security Police, I said to him, "Under what law are you detaining him?" Because as far as we knew, a person could only be detained for 48-hours and has to be brought to court after that. And the Security Policeman said to me: "You call yourself a lawyer, and you don’t know which law." And then he wrote it down for me, that it was the Terrorism Act of 1967 or something. And as far as we were concerned that law was passed in Parliament - they said at the time in Parliament "to arrest infiltrators at the borders." And here it was being used for ordinary people. It was first used to detain Winnie Mandela and a whole lot of people who had held meetings or called a street march, or something. Shanthi Naidoo, Winnie Mandela, all these people were detained and this was the second incident where the act was used for people who had held meetings. And I took that note that he had written to an advocate. Well I could talk a lot about those cases but I handled the trial as defence counsel. They were all found guilty and sentenced to Robben Island. They were Kader Hassim, Sunny Venkatrathnum, people from the Transkei, people from the Cape. And they were sentenced to periods of imprisonment from five to eight years. In the course of that I had brought an application for relief for my husband, Gaby Pillay. And I could do that because he had left a power of attorney, in my favour. Now that’s the first time that an application was made for a detainee because under the Terrorism Act, courts cannot rule on the validity of detentions under the Terrorism Act. And because detainees were inside, they're in custody, nobody could bring an application for them. So I could do that because he left this power of attorney, and he had also, after a previous detention, written down his experiences, all the threats that were made to him. We brought this application before Justice Harcourt in the Pietermaritzburg High Court and he granted the order that the police are not to use unlawful methods of interrogation against him and that the order must be served on him by the sheriff. And that he must not be moved from where he is because the judge said when he was a prisoner of war he was moved, in Italy, from place to place and his family didn’t know where he was. And when that order was served on Gaby he said he wept in detention because they didn’t ill-treat him after that. That application was supported by affidavits from the ten Unity Movement members who were on trial and all of whom had been tortured. And that application became a UN document. Later we made an application supported by affidavits from mainly ANC people in exile in England, who had been tortured by the security people under the command of Colonel Swanepoel, who was known as the "Rooinek", because of all the red veins sticking out in his neck. He was a fearsome character. And I know that he was in charge of Security Police investigations over Namibians, all of whom who had been tortured. So we endeavoured to show that he was using the same system of torture to extract information. We didn’t succeed in the Hassim and Venkatruthnum trial, but we succeeded in a similar application in the Harry Gwala trial. Once again using affidavits to show the impacts of solitary confinement. We called an American expert over and he described the DDD syndrome, which is a Dread, Degradation and Dependency. And that decision is recorded in our appeal chamber and once again all these applications became UN documents. For the first time, the world had documentary accounts of torture before they had heard stories, rumours and individual accounts. Now they became court documents. So that’s my account and, of course, then I acted for the Black Consciousness Movement at which time I met you, Vino, and these young people were charged for having been in touch with the FRELIMO Movement, and staging a rally in Durban. It was a new experience to me to meet young students who had so much courage, who did not, like the older politicians, play by the rules. For instance, there was Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley who refused to apply to the magistrate for permission for relief of their banning orders, and the magistrate would phone me to say, "You know, your clients are so discourteous, they refuse to say Your Worship or Dear Sir." These are young people who came in with new strategies and taught the older generation not to be so compliant. I also represented the 1973 Durban Strike so-called instigators, and one of them was Chris Albertyn who became a famous lawyer thereafter. June Rosenala, Mr Khumalo, I forget his first name. Those were all 1973 cases, so you are talking about me starting a law practice in 1967 and within five years being thrown into political cases.