MAVERICK CITIZEN TRIBUTE
Professor Christof Heyns was a mensch devoted to developing leaders to advance democracy and human rights
The sudden death of Professor Christof Heyns on Sunday, 28 March, is a terrible loss to his family, academia, the global human rights movement and South Africa. Although Heyns’ name may be unfamiliar to people outside of the human rights movement, his contribution to South Africa, Africa and the world has been enormous.
The University of Pretoria, where Professor Christof Heyns was the director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and previous director of the globally respected Centre for Human Rights (CHR), said that his “enthusiasm for life, his dedication as a UP Law academic, his national and international contributions, influence and work are unequalled”.
The CHR, in its tribute, called him their “founding father, a trail-blazer, and a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. He was our dynamic initiator-in-chief. He played a pioneering role in positioning the Centre as a pan-African centre of excellence. Constantly brimming with new ideas and grand schemes, plans and projects, he propelled the Centre into new directions and challenged it to explore different dimensions.
“To Christof, if something could be conceived, it could be achieved.”
From Sunday evening news of his death started to spread rapidly over social media. On Monday, the CHR created a memorial page on Facebook in his memory which, within hours, contained hundreds of entries from all over the world. The reactions registered on Facebook, on WhatsApp groups and emails speak volumes about how highly Heyns the man, the mentor, the “rock star” and the lawyer was regarded.
Below are some of them.
Arnold Tsunga, chairperson of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
“The sudden demise of Professor Christof Heyns is a real tragedy to us as a community of human rights activists in southern Africa. As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee his contribution to production of General Comment Number 37 on the right to peaceful assembly is invaluable at a time when we are experiencing democratic regression and authoritarian consolidation globally. He is irreplaceable and shall be sorely missed. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”
Raenette Taljaard, former politician and independent analyst
“Prof Christof Heyns was one of South Africa and the world’s great thought leaders and moral authorities on human rights. Beyond his contribution to academia, his work as a UN Special Rapporteur stands as a towering tribute to the right to life in a world where algorithms and lethal autonomous weapons can make life and death decisions that are core to who we are as humanity. His work will live on in the many principled human rights fighters and public intellectuals that have had the privilege to encounter him and to be mentored by him. He will be greatly missed.”
Jason Brickhill, human rights lawyer and former director of the Constitutional Litigation Unit at the Legal Resources Centre
“So very shocked and sad to hear that Christof Heyns has passed on. Such a gentle, wise and self-deprecating soul. I was lucky to be taught by him (about the African regional human rights system) and he supervised my master’s dissertation just over a decade ago.
“He did so much to advance human rights in very real, meaningful ways, especially with his work on the African regional system (he was a true pan-Africanist!) and on the right to life at the UN.
“He shared with me and other classmates his ‘struggle approach’ to human rights, which is still the foundation for how I think about the law’s role in the world. We will remember you, Christof, and carry with us the ideas that you shared.”
Faranaaz Veriava, head of the Basic Education Rights programme at SECTION27
“Around 1995 I was young and green in my first job, working in the Idasa Pretoria office. Ivor Jenkins, our director, talked me into meeting with a Moroccan delegation visiting the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria to discuss human rights law. Prof Christof Heyns hosted the delegation. I was probably terrible in that meeting but Prof Heyns was warm and encouraging and I became very interested in the work of the Centre. The next year I registered in the LLM programme at the centre which was a pioneering programme at the time for students all over Africa interested in human rights law. Later I would teach annually in that same programme. Much later, complete my doctorate through the UP law school and then teach at the law school myself. If Ivor Jenkins had not thrown me in at the deep end that day, I wonder if I would have any history with UP – a historically Afrikaans university – and that is now such a positive part of my life. RIP Prof Heyns, a warm and inspiring man and pioneer in human rights law.”
Alice Brown, former resident coordinator, Ford Foundation
“What sad news. I met Christof in the late 1980s through my work with the Ford Foundation. Christof was an innovative human rights academic who was a trailblazer for a number of important rights-focused training programs. In addition, in all my interactions with him over the years, I found him to be a very decent human being.”
Sandy Liebenberg, chair in human rights law, University of Stellenbosch, and a former member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
“It is absolutely devastating news. We were contacting each other on Friday by WhatsApp as he was here in Stellenbosch and had arranged to have lunch today in the Botanical Gardens. He was so full of life, projects and was going to speak to me about involving me in a project on the UN treaty-body system. It is a massive loss for human rights for South Africa, Africa and the world.”
Thuli Madonsela, former Public Protector, current law trust chair in social justice, University of Stellenbosch
“What a sad occasion. He was such a mensch, resolutely devoted to developing leaders to advance democracy and human rights in this continent.
“The news of the passing of Christof Heyns hit me like a ton of bricks. I have known Christof for all my grown-up life.
“A quintessential professional, Christoff invested a lot in developing leaders that are anchored in a sound knowledge and values system regarding human rights and democracy. He was passionate about the African continent and building scholarship in the continent on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
“In the early nineties I spent a wonderful couple of weeks with him as we did an impact assessment of EU human rights funding in SA during apartheid. My favourite moment was us rushing like hungry kids at a sweet store as we sought and eventually pounced on brand factory shops in Mauritius when we only had three hours to do so before rushing for our flight.
“The country, the continent and the entire world is poorer because of Christof Heyns’ untimely passing, yet richer because of the legacy he leaves behind. It is said leaders do not die, they multiply. Christof leaves pieces of himself among the many scholars he nurtured and policymakers he touched. May his great soul Rest In Peace.”
Bongani Majola, Chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission
“We deeply mourn the untimely passing of Prof Christof Heyns, a giant in the promotion of human rights. Empowering young people has always been his passion. I first met him in the late 1980s/early 1990s when he and I ran a project that sought to open opportunities for final-year law students from the then historically black universities to find placements in commercial law firms. At the time, it was hard for many black law graduates to be admitted to articles of clerkship and even harder – almost impossible to get placed in commercial law firms.
“For a number of years he and I worked hard on opening these opportunities, which in the course of time spawned a number of black-owned commercial law firms. The idea had been the brainchild of Professor Michael Reisman of Yale Law School, Sipho Mahamba and former Constitutional Court Judge Johann van der Westhuizen.
“Today South Africa boasts a large number of black-owned commercial law firms. There were also experienced black commercial lawyers when transformation came and they fitted well in existing formerly white commercial law firms when these firms started to diversify.
“Another empowerment project that Christof Heyns employed significantly to empower the youth was the moot court competitions that he and his colleagues took beyond the borders of South Africa, the borders of SADC and beyond the boundaries of the African continent. Recently, he had taken the promotion of human rights to schools in the basic education environment, a project that he passed on to the South African Human Rights Commission once it had taken a firm hold among basic education schools.
“He was a visionary who believed in investing in the youth in order to build a strong human rights culture. The country has lost a true human rights activist. He will be sorely missed.”
Edwin Cameron, former Constitutional Court judge
Really terribly shocked and saddened by Christof’s sudden death yesterday. He was a meticulous, conscientious, persistent, courageous fighter for justice and human rights.
The accolades and grief I’ve just seen well warranted.
Rose Hanzi, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
“Very very sad. Prof Heyns raised the African continent high with his contributions at the ACHPR [African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights] and UN.”
Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International
“So saddened to learn of the death of Prof Christof Heyns. Many of you may know him. He was my teacher and I suspect a few others on this group. What a dedicated Human Rights Activist he was. Beyond teaching, he will be remembered for drafting the General Comment on Freedom of Assembly … he was until his death after a heart attack while hiking a member of the HRC. MHSRIP”
Steven LB Jensen, Danish Institute for Human Rights
“Oh no, this is so sad and shocking news. I met him twice – first in Lund for a two-hour conversation just the two of us and again at the Danish Institute for a meeting on collaborations between our institutions. He was a wonderful person and so easy to engage with. He will be sorely missed by many all around the world.” DM/MC
The Centre for Human Rights has created a memorial page on Facebook in memory of Prof Christof Heyns. They have invited anyone and everyone to share how Heyns affected their lives.
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