Viv Greene Attorneys

Dr. Navanethem Pillay


Pillay has made significant contributions to the legal field and by doing so has helped propel South Africa forward into the democratic age. She has paved the way for women all over the world. She was the first woman to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa, and the first black woman to serve as a judge on the High Court appointed by President Mandela. She is a trailblazer for many women who may have thought it was impossible to be successful and impactful in a segregated country and what remains a male-dominated filed.

Navanethem (Navi) Pillay was born in South Africa on 23 September 1941 to Indian parents of Tamil descent.

As one of eight children born to a poor Indian South African growing up under apartheid, she faced intersectional layers of hardships and discrimination. This experience eventually fuelled much of her professional work. Her father was a bus driver who worked many jobs and her mother stayed home with the children. Education was a priority in her household, and both of her parents were very strict. Pillay’s parents believed in raising all their children equally, educating both their sons and daughters, which was uncommon during this time.

After completing her secondary education, Pillay became a student in the early 1960s at the University of Natal in South Africa. At the university, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963 and an LLB degree in 1965. Throughout her time in school, Pillay was active within protests and boycotts against apartheid.

In 1967, Pillay became the first woman of colour to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa. Her motivation to become a human rights activist and a defence attorney for those who were fighting against the apartheid system came from her own experience suffering under the oppressive nature of apartheid. Pillay spent over thirty years of her career defending anti-apartheid activists.

In 1980, she became a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Around the same time, she became an attorney and conveyancer of the High Court of South Africa.

After taking some time to practice law, she pursued her graduate education and earned a Masters’ degree in Law with a concentration in human rights and international law in 1982 from Harvard University.

In 1988, she earned a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Harvard Law School, making her the first South African to earn a doctorate in law from the prestigious institution.

Her quest for justice fuelled her work in support of both women and minority groups. In 1985, Pillay cofounded the international women’s rights group called Equality Now. Pillay served as the Vice-President of the University of Durban Westville starting in 1995. She continued to dedicate her life and career to the education of others. During that same year, apartheid ended, and Pillay was appointed as acting judge on the South African High Court.

In 1998, she was elected by the UN General Assembly to be a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She served in that position for eight years, serving as the president of the tribunal from Pillay achieved transformative reform while working in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In 2003, she was appointed as a judge to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Pillay served in the Appeals Chamber until August 2008, when she resigned to take the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2008. In this role, she fought for human rights and justice on an international level, advocating for people who were deprived of equal rights under the law. Throughout her career, Pillay achieved significant advancements for people of colour in Africa and around the world.

Pillay also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in May 2015 from Tufts University.

Dr. Pillay has waged a lifelong campaign against inequality, injustice, and the violence perpetrated against innocents.