Representing Nelson and Winnie Mandela among many others, Ms. Jana fought for equality in South Africa both in and out of the courtroom.
Devikarani Priscilla Jana was born on 5 December 1943, in Westville, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), to a middle class Indian family.[i] From an early age Jana developed an awareness of the unequal society she was born into, stating in her book Fighting for Mandela, ‘everyone who wasn’t white was suffering’.[ii] This conscientization was nurtured early in her life by her father, a school teacher, who challenged social injustices, whether these related to Apartheid or to the Indian caste system. [iii] The family was constantly uprooted because of her father’s political activity.[iv]
From 1960 she attended Durban High School[v] and in September 1963 she commenced tertiary education at the Sophia College for Women in Breach Candy, Bombay India.[vi] Although she had initially planned to study medicine at the Sophia College, following her marriage to her first husband, Reg, Priscilla decided that law was what she really wanted to do. She initially commenced her law degree through the University of South Africa (Unisa) [vii] , but went on to become a full-time law student at the University College for Indians on Salisbury Island, off the Durban coast, where she was the only female in her class.[viii]
In 1974 she graduated with a degree and completed her articles at the law firm of Ismail Ayob in Johannesburg.[ix] As a human rights attorney her clients ranged from society’s most economically downtrodden to many noted political figures. In addition to her own life experiences, through her activities as a human rights lawyer she saw the brutality of Apartheid first hand and became determined to fight this hated system by joining an underground African National Congress (ANC) cell. [x]
Jana went on to become the personal attorney of Nelson Mandela and, as such, was one of very few South Africans to have had unique access to Mandela during his incarceration on Robben Island. It has been said of Jana that ‘at one stage, she represented every single political prisoner on Robben Island.’[xi]
She has recorded details of her extraordinary life and her courageous role in fighting the hated system of Apartheid, in Fighting for Mandela. In this book she poignantly writes, ‘My entire adult life has been dedicated to dismantling the apartheid system and attempting to replace it with something wholesome and good for all South Africans. I cannot regret one minute of it.’[xii]
In 1980, Jana was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, Act No. 44 of 1950 for five years.
She joined an underground cell of the African National Congress (ANC) reporting to former president Thabo Mbeki that included former police commissioner Jackie Selebi and religious leaders Rev. Beyers Naudé and Rev. Cedric Mayson. Her access to Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned on Robben Island enabled her to carry coded messages from senior political leaders on the Island to then ANC President Oliver Tambo.
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.
Devikarani Priscilla Jana passed away on 10 October 2020.