South Africa has lost a “giant’ with the death of South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) deputy chairperson Devikarani Priscilla Sewpal Jana on Saturday, the SAHRC said in paying tribute to the anti-apartheid struggle lawyer.
“South Africa has lost a giant who sacrificed herself selflessly for us all to enjoy the fruit of the constitutional democracy that we enjoy today,” the commission said in a statement
“As a black female lawyer she overcame pernicious limitations imposed by the apartheid system that marginalised her on the basis of race, sex, and gender, and fought for the liberation of the then oppressed majority of South Africans.
“She continued to give of herself, well up until the age of 76, still labouring tirelessly to substantively turn South Africa into a country where all people who live in it are equal, enjoy their freedom and innate human dignity,” the SAHRC said.
In her younger days, Jana was granted a government of India scholarship to study medicine in India where she completed studies in inter-science and returned to South Africa in 1965. She completed a Bachelor of Laws Degree at the University of South Africa (Unisa). In 1979, she opened her own law practice with a focus on civil liberties and human rights.
Jana represented Solomon Mahlangu in 1978 and played a pivotal role in engineering international awareness and protest against his death sentence and execution.
In another historically significant matter, Jana took the South African Medical and Dental Council on review in 1984 for its treatment of Steve Bantu Biko, who died in police custody. The court ordered the council to hold an investigation into the conduct of the doctors who were eventually found guilty of disgraceful conduct, the SAHRC said.
During legal career, Jana was at the forefront of defending human rights and represented various prominent anti-apartheid activists, including former president Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisuslu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Archbishop Emiritus Desmond Tutu.
At some stage Jana was also a member of the South African Law Commission and served as a member of the advisory committee to the president. She served as South African ambassador in the Netherlands from 2001 to 2005 and ambassador in Ireland from 2006 to 2011. Jana was a member of parliament from 1994 to 1999.
Jana joined the SAHRC in January 2017 as commissioner and deputy chairperson, taking responsibility for the commission’s equality focus area, the commission said.