“Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight. My blood will nourish the tree that bears the fruits of freedom.” These were the last words of South African freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu, recorded by his lawyer Priscilla Jana, before he was hanged on April 6, 1979.
Mahlangu’s words, which became a rallying cry in South Africa’s freedom struggle, are the opening words of Jana’s biography, Fighting for Mandela (2016). In the introduction of the book, she describes her utter despair that despite worldwide protests and petitions from the United Nations and international leaders, the apartheid regime went on to execute the young man. Priscilla spent the night before the execution, praying and weeping with Mahlangu’s family.
When we received news of Priscilla’s death on October 10, I thought of Mahlangu’s words and how they could be adapted to describe Priscilla’s life.
Priscilla was a larger-than-life character in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. Best known as a human rights lawyer, she was also an underground operative for the African National Congress (ANC), a member of South Africa’s first democratic parliament, South African ambassador to the Netherlands and Ireland, Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission and an activist for children’s rights.
I loved Priscilla as a family friend and admired her as a courageous human rights activist. She transcended ethnic, religious and political boundaries and carved a unique place in South Africa’s pantheon of anti-apartheid heroes.
Priscilla was born Devikarani Priscilla Sewpal in the Westville suburb of Durban on December 5, 1943. After she completed high school in Durban, Priscilla’s father, Hansraj Sewpal, wanted her to study medicine in Scotland, but Priscilla’s independent, some would say stubborn, temperament was already evident. She demanded to go to India. Her father was in regular correspondence with Indira Gandhi after meeting her on a passing visit to Durban in 1942. He sent a telegram to her asking for help. In Priscilla’s words: “My education was thus arranged personally by India’s future prime minister.”
In 1963, Priscilla travelled to India to study at Sophia College for Women in Breach Candy, Mumbai. She confesses to feeling like an alien: “I hadn’t come to my roots after all. I wasn’t going to fit in and be accepted here any more than I had been in South Africa. I was neither from the West nor the East.” Despite feelings of displacement, she made good friends in India and led an active social life. She met and fell in love with a fellow South African student, Reg Jana, and married him soon after their return home in 1965. The newly married couple made their home in Johannesburg suburb, Lenasia, designated for Indians.
The 1970s saw the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement and Priscilla was one of the many young South Africans drawn into its orbit. She attended a meeting addressed by the charismatic Steve Biko, a rising political star who preached unity among black people. “I listened to his definitions and was amazed. All of us there in that hall were oppressed and suffering. There was no need to fumble with our identities. Indians like me could totally be a part of this.”
Priscilla was always conscious of the injustice of apartheid, but it hit her in a deeply personal way when the beloved home that had been in their family for three generations was bulldozed after Westcliff was declared a White area under the notorious Group Areas Act. They later realised that a precious family heirloom — a photograph of her great-grandfather with Mahatma Gandhi — was lost somewhere in the rubble of the destroyed home.
Priscilla saw her mother’s spirit destroyed by the loss of their home and it strengthened her resolve to study law rather than medicine. “As a lawyer I would not just be representing people treated badly: I would feel it all alongside them.”
“This is my lawyer Priscilla Jana. She is also my daughter.” This is how my mother-in-law Albertina Sisulu introduced me to Priscilla during my visit to my future in-laws in March 1986. From the time Walter Sisulu was incarcerated on Robben Island in July 1963 until the release of Jongumzi Sisulu in March 1990, there was always at least one member of the Sisulu family in prison or detention throughout the tumultuous 1980s. Priscilla represented them all.
I took issue with the title of Priscilla’s biography because although she famously represented Nelson and Winnie Mandela, the Sisulus, Mbekis and other prominent political families, many of the people she acted for were struggling and destitute. Priscilla fought ferociously for the rights of her clients. She had no qualms about confronting the security police and she paid a heavy price for it. In 1979, she was served with a Banning Order, a pernicious restriction that prevented the banned person from attending large gatherings and forced them to report periodically to a designated police station. That did not stop her from continuing her work as political repression increased in the 1980s.
One day, Priscilla arrived at her office to find a five-month-old baby. Priscilla was representing the baby’s father, Popo Molefe, one of the accused in one of the major treason trials of 1980. Destitute and on the run from the security police, the mother, Phinda Hashe, had left the baby with Priscilla in desperation. By the time Molefe was released from jail after four years, he and Phinda were no longer together. Recognising that little Tina (named after Albertina Sisulu) was so attached to Priscilla and her husband, the biological parents allowed her to remain with Priscilla. When she was 16, Tina was formally adopted and became Albertina Jana Molefe, in touch with all her parents and accepting of her complex history.
Tina grew up to be an accomplished young woman who opted for a diplomatic career. One of Priscilla’s proudest moments was Tina’s marriage, a few years ago, to Frank Chikane, the son of Moss Chikane, who had been one of the co-accused with Molefe. The couple married according to Hindu rites by a priest brought from India by Priscilla. I sat next to Phinda who spoke about how proud she was of Tina and appreciative of the way Priscilla had raised her. Of course, there was a sense of loss — but also of immense love and generosity between the two mothers.
As I sat in that room, heavy with the histories of pain and loss experienced not only by Priscilla and Phinda, but also many of the former activists and political prisoners present there, I felt that Tina and Frank, the two accomplished young Africans, whose parents, both adopted and biological, had suffered so much, represented a triumph over the trauma of the past and the best of a new South Africa.
Priscilla Jana continued to speak truth to power in post-apartheid South Africa. She decried the fact that South Africa continues to be one of the most unequal countries in the world. As we grieve her departure, all we can say is Hamba kahle, qhawe lamaqhawe. (Go well, hero of heroes). May she rest in peace and her legacy live on.
Sisulu, a writer, human rights activist and political analyst, is the author of Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines