Maverick Citizen

MAVERICK CITIZEN: Friday Activist

A life of activism – not just a career path – for Yasmin Sooka 

A life of activism – not just a career path – for Yasmin Sooka 
Human rights activist Yasmin Sooka has made it her life’s work about fighting for justice for victims of oppressive regimes. (Photo: Supplied)

Giving victims a voice and speaking truth to power can be loud and clear and still not sound like shouting when it comes from the mouth of human rights activist Yasmin Sooka.

It was clear from early in her life that Yasmin Sooka would not be great at some things – like hockey or netball. It was also unlikely that she would stick to teaching for long. 

What was also clear was that Sooka – the daughter of a sports-mad school principal – was not going to be someone who would keep quiet about injustices or back down to a regime entrenching its programme of oppressing South Africans on the “wrong” side of white.  

Sooka, a human rights lawyer and activist, would teach for about two years while waiting to do articles, and would go on to be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) longest-serving commissioner. She only recently stepped down from her role as executive director of the Human Rights Foundation after 19 years. 

Sooka doesn’t need the titles, though, to stick her neck out to speak truth to power – including calling out one-time comrades and colleagues who have been tainted by corruption’s rot. 

She’s still finding more ways to be a voice for victims silenced by brutal regimes around the world – and she does it all with a distinctly quiet power.  

“We need to be reminded that in South Africa our democracy came as a compromise and at the cost of lives. The state has also done a pretty lousy job of honouring its obligation in keeping faith with the families of the victims of apartheid,” she says. 

Born in Cape Town, she grew up in Kimberley and Johannesburg. Her family moved where her father found work. At one time her home was a flat at the corner of Bree and Diagonal Streets in downtown Joburg and her granny lived nearby. But then came the forced removals in the 1960s that meant families like hers were uprooted and made to relocate to Lenasia. 

Fracturing lives and tearing up communities was apartheid’s devastating  weapon to dehumanise. Losing her home and the sense of community was Sooka’s first realisation that things were desperately wrong in South Africa.

There was also the night when Security Branch police raided their home because her father’s name appeared on a list of apartheid police targets as a community activist. Narayanaswamy Rathinasamy (Raths) was principal at Nirvana High School and was chair of the South African School Sports Association. 

“I considered my father a powerful man in my life but we were helpless as they turned our house upside down – this was my first realisation of the power of the state,” says Sooka. 

The state’s vice grip squeezed even tighter as she started university at Durban Westville. It was the time of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Sooka pushed back and was kicked out of the university residence for standing up to government spies on campus.

She was determined to become a lawyer and to follow in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer, activist, anti-colonialist and advocate of nonviolent resistance.

And so she finished her law degree at Wits University and joined the interfaith movement that she says was having the conversations the liberation movements weren’t having. Here she learnt about leaning on mentors, building networks and finding common ground. The support would be necessary because the struggle would be long and seemingly futile as the years passed.

“None of us thought that we would see change in our lifetimes,” she says, reflecting on those days. It was only in the mid-1980s that things started to shift, with the first meetings with the ANC in exile. Sooka would become part of the early discussions around the framing of a TRC. It was then too that she would be confronted with the rude awakening of trade-offs and the tainted birth of South Africa’s democracy. 

“I was conscious of the deep compromises but also the need to craft a way for victims of apartheid atrocities to be heard. If the Nats had their way, a TRC process would have been an administrative process and a secret tribunal,” she says. 

The TRC would have its shortcomings but it would be groundbreaking in making the process victim-centric. It’s still respected as a model for transitional justice around the world. Sooka says: “We fight not to build a better past but so we have the basis to build a better future.”

The loose ends and unfinished business from the TRC, she says, are about “the structural questions at the heart of transition and the questions and issues that have been glossed over only to be magnified today. People don’t have a real, complete idea on how to deal with it.” 

It means there’s still work to be done, and decades later she’s still ready to go another few rounds. She remains an adviser to the UN, she continues to push for prosecutions of perpetrators of apartheid-era crimes through the foundation, and she collaborates with colleagues around the world on bringing justice to victims and their families.

“I always knew law was only part of the answer. The other parts are commitment, using whatever tools you have to fight and realising that you don’t do it by yourself. 

“I remain inspired by the courage of victims, their doggedness and their sacrifices. So, you realise that you fight so that another generation doesn’t have to deal with the same crap,” she says, calling a spade a spade but still exuding calm and composure. 

She can remain considered and measured even when she’s scathing about State Capture, about the National Prosecuting Authority dragging its feet on reopening inquests on those who died in detention during apartheid or the time her colleagues in civil society went silent and allowed the Scorpions to fade to a convenient mute. 

Hers has been a lifetime of looking at tempests and not being shaken. Sooka says staying calm comes from knowing the gender dynamic of being a female lawyer in a world of mostly male counterparts ready to pounce on stereotypes of women being “hysterical”, “over-emotional” and “too dramatic”. There have also been lessons on taking a deep breath before reacting that came from her father, also from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and from her family, who are always ready to rein her in. 

“My family is not afraid to tell me when I’m being overbearing and it’s this part of normal life and doing normal things that help me find peaceful moments,” she says of life with her husband and her three now grown-up children.

“I guess I was the disciplinarian in the home, but we’ve always tried to tell the kids that education is important, along with being happy and caring about the world.” 

Sooka lives by her own advice: meaningful work makes her happy and she still cares, she really still gives a damn. MC

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