Tributes for Priscilla Jana, “people’s lawyer” and political activist

AFRICAN MIRROR REPORTER

MANY South Africans, among them political activists who were defended by Priscilla Jana against the brutal apartheid system, have paid warm and emotional tributes to the “the people’s lawyer” who passed on at 78.

Jana not only provided legal services to the political activists but looked after their families, adopting some of the children whose parents were detained. Jana represented many political activists, including Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Rapu Molekane was a teenage underground operative of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe when Jana defended him and members of the South African Youth Congress.

Molekane, a diplomat and former member of parliament said;

“Oh no, the Boabab tree of legal defence of the June 16 and the  Young Lions detachments have fallen, a smart lawyer, fearless and always ready to take the ruthless Apartheid gestapo head  on, using their own oppressive laws  to expose and embarrass them. In the process consolidating and expanding the support of the global anti-apartheid movement.  

“Priscilla as we just called her, mobilised resources and kept our families afloat and was more than just a lawyer, she would visit our families in their e townships,  become a social worker a Postperson relaying coded messages from one prison to the other and to underground cadres and MK units especially during the state of emergency but also before then. We would know who was where and how they were copying and be able to make assessments of how much information the enemy had, thanks to her understanding of our codes and network her office had. 

“She played a huge role in the preparation for the launch of the South African Youth Congress as well as afterwards when the first layer of leadership was nabbed. It was partially through her efforts that the coordinated national mass defiance campaign of the mass democratic movement continued especially youth ungorvernability and rendering Apartheid state administration and institutions unworkable.  We owe this giant our gratitude for all the sacrifices she made for the freedom we enjoy today may her soul rest in power”

In its tribute, her party, the ANC said: “Jana was one of the most brilliant lawyers in our country, Pricilla Jana could have chosen to selfishly pursue personal wealth and material advancement. Instead, she understood her career as a calling – to serve the people of South Africa, especially the poor and powerless.  She placed her skills and expertise in the hands of the liberation movement. Her clients included some of the key political figures as well as the defenceless and downtrodden.

Her determination to fight the vicious and evil system of apartheid saw her joining the underground networks of the African National Congress (ANC). During the 1980s when the regime was unleashing some of its most vicious and repressive machinery against the people through successive states of emergency and trampled upon the rights of activists, Pricilla Jana was one of the few progressive lawyers who provided free support to detainees.”

The 70s Generation, a group activists, many of whom were represented by Jana, described her as fearless. 

In a statement, the 70s Generation said Jana took on the vicious apartheid system and found innovative ways to assist those detained under the feared Terrorism Act.

“A brave, generous, compassionate and caring lawyer, friend, comrade, sibling and mother to Tina Molefe-Chikane will abide in all our memories,” said the 70s Generation.

Jana was also an underground operative of the ANC, a former member of Parliament and was appointed South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands after the dawn of democracy.

Among the many freedom fighters that she represented was struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu who was hanged by the apartheid government. Jana was the last person to see Mahlangu alive. On April 6, 1979, the day Mahlangu (22) was executed, Jana was in Pretoria at the crack of dawn  and spent final moments with Mahlangu who handed her his last message to the people of South Africa in 1979. The handwritten message was delivered to Mahlangu’s family, the ANC and now has a pride spot in SA’s history.  And so does Jana, who went on to defend many activists.

After she graduated with her law degree, Jana joined Ishmael Ayob and partners where her first clients were then South Africa’s first politica couple – the Mandelas. 

In one of her interviews Jana said. “After I met Nelson Mandela for the first time in 1977 I realised then that my life will be devoted to human rights. I could not accept, in any way, accept that our leader of a stature like Nelson Mandela was in Robben Island, incarcerated away from his people. And when I saw him for the first time, on the way back I cried all the way on the boat and there and then I vowed to myself that I am going to devote my entire energy to the liberty of the people of South Africa.” 

Jana was born into and faced down apartheid all her life. As a child, she witnessed when her family was evicted from their home, which was subsequently bulldozed because it was in ‘a white area’. Later in life, Jana was banned by the apartheid government and her own home was attacked with petrol bombs on several occasions by the apartheid security police.