South Africa

Maverick Citizen

Faranaaz Veriava: Always ready to take on the good fight

Faranaaz Veriava is a public interest lawyer at Section 27. She enjoys the natural surrounds Dale Lace Park when time allows. 250820. Photo: Chris Collingridge

Fighting the good fights starts with foregrounding values that matter and then having the empathy that gets adversaries even to change their minds. Human rights lawyer Faranaaz Veriava strives to hit this mark.

Our roots plug into the soil of our origin stories, deep into the fertile grounds of heritage, family and values – the ones we keep and the ones we eventually show the middle finger to. 

Faranaaz Veriava is propped up against her purple plush headboard chatting via Skype. She jokes about being an interior decorator in another life; about walking away from a cushy corporate law offer; and the damn fine feeling of taking on bad guys and winning. 

She turned out to be a human rights lawyer starting her career at Idasa (Institute for  Democratic Alternatives in South Africa) and working at the Human Rights Commission before spending some time at the Johannesburg Bar. Today she’s head of the education programme at SECTION27, the public interest law centre. 

Together with Equal Education, SECTION27 brought and won a legal challenge in July to compel the Department of Basic Education to continue with the Schools Nutrition programme suspended during Covid-19 lockdown. Government’s decision came with the shameful cost of thousands of children going hungry.

“It was the most painful case to work on because nothing is worse than letting a child go hungry,” says the woman who also worked on justice for five-year-old Michael Komape, who drowned in a pit toilet at his school in Seshego, Limpopo in 2014. 

That these cases stick in the public consciousness is the point for Veriava. Her outrage turns to drive and then, as a self-confessed A-type personality, she goes into high gear building legal cases and strategy for broad impact. She insists on resonance beyond a courtroom or a ruling. It should feel like Michael was every South African’s son; everybody’s little brother. 

“Michael would have been the same age as my youngest son Reza; I never forget that,” she says. 

Veriava’s story of becoming a fighter and defender for human rights though begins long before she was. Her roots are tangled up in a family story of political activist history and a tradition of public service. It’s also a story of family rupture, sacrifice and confronting the inevitable flaws of beings human. Veriava claims all these histories. Struggle against injustice has given her an internal compass, and surrender to the certainty of human frailties has given her empathy. 

“I want my boys to understand that who they are in the world does not necessarily make them better, and if they’re better at some things it’s because they’ve had different opportunities,” she says.  

“When I was about 11-years-old my father, a public health doctor, was arrested under the state of emergency laws and detained at Modderbee Prison. I remember visiting him in prison and crying thinking he would be killed because it was just a few years earlier in 1977 that Steve Biko had been killed and my father was among the people demanding the doctors who attended to Biko be sanctioned,” she says.

Two years earlier her parents had also got divorced. It meant moving from Lenasia to Laudium to be raised by her single mom and aunt. There taught her independence and hard work but there would be labels: daughter of a divorcee; the daughter of political activist; and being secular born into a Muslim community. 

Being an outsider though was a super power of perspective. She could get over “needing to pray five times a day to fit in with my Muslim friends at school”. She would also grow to recognise complexity and shortcomings in her parents and the adults in her family. They were the imperfectly perfect of just being human, heroes too to her. 

At Wits University studying law and politics were magnets. So was student politics of the late-80s and the man who would become her husband, Kenneth Creamer. He is a publisher, economics lecturer and member of the presidential economics advisory council.

The relationship would be love, but more labels and lessons would follow. They are an inter-racial couple with different religious and class backgrounds. In the beginning, they made concessions like living together but provinces away from family and expectation. They even settled for “a fusion wedding” combining religious rites. 

She says: “We got together in that magical year of 1994. We believed in the same politics and values of a non-racist and non-sexist world. Maybe we were  naïve thinking we were going to change the world.”

Now in the middle of her life, she acknowledges that things have become more complicated. “Identity politics of today, like the Black Consciousness Movement, are critical to get over an inferiority complex, to recognise oppression but it has to move beyond this and it needs to overcome opportunistic exploitation,” she says.  

“Complicated” is not the moment to look away though. It’s not the time to shrink from personal power, responsibility or action, she says. 

The fight for her is still about upholding values that build a strong state; one that delivers better quality public services. It’s also to push back against the erosion of civil liberties and human rights. She keeps telling this to her boys Adam (15) and Reza (11), the law students she teaches and SECTION27 research interns she mentors.

“I want my boys to understand that who they are in the world does not necessarily make them better, and if they’re better at some things it’s because they’ve had different opportunities,” she says.  

She leaves them with heavy things to think about but it’s to shape them, not burden them. She adds that she anyway wins hands down as cooler of the boys’ two parents – “from my R&B and jazz music, to fashion or anything cool,” she says with a laugh. She concedes though that she’s rubbish at getting excited about sports.

But the family may take walks together. Nature is her freedom, she says, religion almost. And it’s trees in particular that she’s drawn too. There’s a kindred connection, or a metaphor at the least: growing from roots grounded in promise to release in canopies of fulfilled potential; and always the sure daring to stand firm. DM

Five Questions for Faranaaz Veriava

What image is on your phone’s home screen?

It’s a photo of my boys. In the photo Adam is four and half, he’s wearing a dashiki and he’s holding his brother Reza who was four months old at the time. Both boys are also wearing garlands we made for spring day; it’s a beautiful pic. 

What would you spend your last R100 on?

A book, it would probably have to be second-hand one at R100. 

What’s the worst piece of advice you ever took?

That’s easy – behave like a lady. 

The thing you wish you learnt earlier on in your life?

I was submissive for too long. As a young black female advocate at the Johnnesburg Bar I tolerated intimation and exclusion and allowed it to make me small; I wish I came into my own confidence and power sooner. 

Three books that have changed your life

Books have been my security blanket all my life. My three book are To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ; Animal Farm by George Orwell; and Nervous Conditions  by Tsitsi Dangaremba. 

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