In memory of Rudolph Jansen

Long-time human rights lawyer, Rudolph Jansen, who fought against injustice on behalf of the poor and marginalized for over three decades, including with respect to the abolition of the death penalty, prison reform, and land reform and restitution, has died. He was a long-standing member and former National Director of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), and leaves behind his wife, Mariana, and two sons, Rudolph and Gustav.

Rudolph died in Limpopo, where he was consulting with the Moletele land claim community, on Saturday. He was 53 years old. Rudolph was born on New Year’s Day in 1964. He grew up in Pretoria, where he lived throughout his life. He completed his law studies at the University of Pretoria, and as a young advocate with the Pretoria Bar, quickly turned his attention to combatting issues of inequality and injustice that were a hallmark of the Apartheid state.  His early and extensive pro bono work for LHR was representative of his commitment to the realization of human rights in South Africa, which defined his career.

During the late 1980’s and early 90’s Rudolph joined other LHR lawyers to prevent the execution of political activists who were facing the death penalty, a horrific tool of persecution by the apartheid state. LHR’s strategy in these days was to delay executions, hopefully for long enough until the death penalty was eventually abolished.

With the abolition of the death penalty in 1995, Rudolph assisted LHR to expand its focus and address numerous unaddressed issues, including the awful conditions in South African prisons. Together with fellow human rights lawyers Rudolph challenged overcrowding, abusive practices like indefinite solitary confinement and other violations.

In 2003, Rudolph took over as LHR’s National Director. He led the organization over the subsequent five years through a challenging period of transition and growth, as LHR re-oriented itself to address the complex social justice challenges faced by the country.  Throughout, he remained a tireless champion of under-served communities in South Africa, inspiring the same commitment from his colleagues.

After his tenure as LHR’s National Director, Rudolph resumed his practice at the Pretoria Bar, achieving senior status in 2014. He developed a wide-ranging practice centred on human rights and public interest law, representing landless communities, unlawfully evicted persons, and human rights defenders, amongst many others.

Rudolph was a legendary cross examiner. Many police officers experienced his piercing cross-examination. Like many human rights lawyers, not all litigation was met with success, but that came with the territory.

Rudolph’s work in recent years focused increasingly on the furtherance of South African land reform and restitution, to which he made an immeasurable contribution. His commitment to the successful implementation and achievement of this constitutional project saw him involved in ground breaking legal cases addressing such issues as post-settlement support and market-related pricing within the government’s willing-seller, willing-buyer policies.  The impact of this work extended well beyond the development of novel legal principles and academic debate: his tireless commitment in this arena made a difference in the lives of thousands, and saw families provided with homes, the dispossessed returned to their land, and communities provided with hope. Rudolph’s advocacy in many of South Africa’s ground-breaking housing cases helped to ensure fair process and entrenched the right of dignity for many of the country’s marginalised.

Rudolph’s latest involvement in legal challenges seeking to ensure the equitable distribution of the country’s mining benefits to affected communities represented the next step in his personal and professional quest for justice on behalf of those whose voices have historically been muted.

He was known for his passion and respect for his clients, and for his refusal to shy away from a fight against those more powerful on behalf of the most marginalised in our society. He was an inspiration to many activists and human rights lawyers over the course of his life, and leaves behind a legion of individuals committed to taking forward his work and vision for a just and equal society.

But beyond these outstanding professional accomplishments, what gave Rudolph the greatest source of pride and joy was his family, and especially his wonderful wife and life partner, Mariana, and his sons, Gustav and Rudolph.

Those of us who knew Rudolph Jansen well feel humbled to have known this great man. The legacy of his work, to quietly push for a more just society will continue to the next generation of human rights lawyers.