Priscilla Jana: a lifelong search for something wholesome and good for all

20 October 2020 - 09:07 By Daphne Mashile-Nkosi
Renowned human rights lawyer Priscilla Jana died earlier this month at the age of 76.
Renowned human rights lawyer Priscilla Jana died earlier this month at the age of 76.

Last week’s passing of political activist and human rights lawyer, Priscilla Jana, brought enormous pain and sadness to her family, colleagues and comrades. The period is as sombre as it inspires reflection on the ideals for which she stood.

In her 2016 book: Fighting For Mandela, Jana wrote: “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.”

She singled out “togetherness” as “one aspect ... that kept us going” during the difficult days of the struggle against apartheid.

These two observations — about her lifelong anti-apartheid activism and loyalty to comradeship — “togetherness” — speak volumes about the pedigree of the activist that Jana was.

She was as crystal clear about what she was fighting against as she was about what she was fighting for.

Her generation envisioned the birth of a “new [person]” who would form part of the anti-colony of post-apartheid activists for progressive social change undergirded by a new and higher civilisation. The high premium on which she placed comradeship testifies to the political and moral virtue of human solidarity in the process of any struggle for social justice. This perspective was the hallmark of activists of yesteryear.

For instance, as head of the ANC external mission, Oliver Tambo on March 2, 1966, wrote to Joe Matthews, then the Administrative Secretary of the organisation, to articulate concerns which, in Tambo’s estimation, merited the attention of leaders and activists alike. Tambo noted: “the solidarity and cohesion essential in our struggle is missing.”

Jana embodied the new person and her exemplary track record has unsurprisingly earned her an honoured place in history.

She belongs to a rare breed whose lives are immersed in the mammoth task of changing human society into a wholesome and good place for all.

The lyrics of the song: In praise of Fighters, in Berthold Brecht’s 1930 play, The Mother are an excellent exemplar of Jana’s calibre: “There are [people] who struggle for a day and they are good. There are [people] who struggle for a year and they are better. There are [people] who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives: these are the indispensable ones.”

To current as to future generations, we owe a debt of broadcasting Priscilla Jana’s life so that it can become the seeds from which will germinate a new crop of progressive activists who are imbued with the values for which she stood and the staying power she expended in realising them.

The tragic truth is that activists of Jana’s measure are few and far between today.

In some respects, we might be back to 1966 when Tambo complained of the short supply of “the solidarity and cohesion essential [for pursuit of] our struggle.”

Think of the growing number and frequency of one step forward and two steps backwards in post 1994 efforts to make SA wholesome and good to all. Without doubt, the cumulative effects of the backward steps carry profound implications for the sustainability of the democratic project. Worse still, its failure would have very serious negative implications for the country.

As a professional, Jana used her legal training to fight apartheid. Today’s younger generation of professionals are equally challenged to use their insights and knowledge of the law to deepen social justice and thereby make ours a wholesome and good country for all. Surely this requires professionals who understand that the greatest achievement and satisfaction come from changing society for the better; one generation to another. Which begs the philosophical question whether a generation which fails to do better than its predecessor can claim to have been successful?

One is also inclined to think of the following thematic areas as forming part of the national leadership’s — in politics, business, labour, religion, traditional leadership, youth, women and others — purview as we celebrate and reflect on Jana’s life:

• We should rededicate efforts to address the unacceptably high levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment, commonly referred to as the “triple challenge”. If there is criticism to the recently released “South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan” document, it is that it lacks the necessary detail and amounts to a wish list which will not take the country to the desired destination;

• Since the tasks at hand require a committed, skilled, professional and ethical public service, the government should accelerate the strengthening of capacity of the state. Such efforts should pay particular attention to local government sphere which is most closest to the citizenry;

• “The power of education,” said Nelson Mandela, “extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.” The continued improvement of the public school system cannot be overemphasised;

• SA desperately needs a sustained public discourse on issues of public morality and ethics. The law is an important instrument but no society can ignore the softer intangibles such as its moral and ethical proposition, and;

• More specifically for its gruesome nature, we need a collective national response to the scourge of violence against women and children. There can be no place for women and children abuse in a democracy.

These and other tasks can only be led and achieved by a pious leadership. Only those so inclined are conscious of their historical responsibility to the country and the people as a whole.

A wholesome, people-centred and good society that Priscilla Jana dreamt and worked for can only be realised by those who understand what she knew: comradeship and human solidarity are the bedrock of all struggles for social justice.

Mashile-Nkosi is a businesswoman and chairperson of Kalagadi Manganese