South African Human Rights Leaders Trained at Notre Dame

In the early 1980’s, Richard Goldstone, a South African judge using his insider position to fight apartheid, met with Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. The legendary civil rights reformer asked what Notre Dame could do to promote justice in South Africa. Goldstone responded, “Educate our lawyers.” The result of this exchange, the LL.M. Program in International Human Rights Law in the Center for Civil and Human Rights, recently welcomed back a remarkable group of its early alumni. The program expanded worldwide and has since educated more than 360 lawyers from at least 90 countries across the globe.

Vinodh Jaichand

Vinodh Jaichand, LL.M. ’88, JSD ’96Dean of the Law School at the University of the Witwatersrand

Vinodh Jaichand arrived at Notre Dame in 1988 as the only member of the first class offering a master’s degree in international human rights. The fledgling program offered him a room in the infirmary until a permanent place could be found.

“I joked that I know I come from a sick society,” he said, “but why was I put in the infirmary?”

Jaichand, 65, grew up in an Indian family on a farm outside of the major city of Durban in South Africa. His grandfather grew bananas and mangos and gave Jaichand’s father, a cabinet maker, an acre to build a house. The boy grew to love the farm, knowing just where to search for snakes or frogs or the best mango tree to climb and eat its fruit.

When he was 16, his family was forced to leave their home under an apartheid policy that separated racial groups, excluding non-whites from living in the most developed areas. “I was very angry about it,” he said, and this dispossession inspired him to study the law and later specialize in land restitution issues.

Jaichand studied law at the segregated University College for Indians, a former naval barracks on an island off Durban. He would later receive a pass to study briefly at Witwatersrand, the then all-white law school where he is now dean.

“I realized how iniquitous the system was — the white facility was fabulous and ours was derelict,” he said. “But you accepted it and vowed to fight the system.”

He worked in human rights law around the world for many years, including nearly a decade at the Irish Center for Human Rights, before returning to Witwatersrand as a teacher. The third oldest university in South Africa now boasts a population that is about 70 percent black. Jaichand is often called its first black dean despite being Indian. The historic alternative, he said, was being “categorized as non-white, and I preferred not to be known by a negative.”

Judith Cohen

Judith Cohen, LL.M. ’95 International Coordinating Committee Liaison Officer at the South African Human Rights Commission

Judith Cohen said that returning to Notre Dame in April “feels like I’ve come full circle.” She had studied law in South Africa and gotten involved in the first democratic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president.

“I arrived at Notre Dame in the euphoria of that moment,” she said. “I still have vivid dreams of my time here. It was an opportunity to be in an academic bubble but still focus on the human rights that I cared about and mix with international students.”

Cohen said she had an incredible host family that lived on the corner by the main entrance to campus and flew South African flags for her parents’ visit on graduation day.

Like Jacquie Cassette, Cohen won an internship to work at the tribunal prosecuting Yugoslavian war crimes. Cohen said she was young, so she carved out a niche figuring out what her team needed as evidence in order to prosecute under international criminal law. For instance, she kept reading about one name who witnesses described as “evil personified.”

“I wanted to nail this guy but there wasn’t enough information,” she said. “So we used the chain of command to show that this man was responsible for horrendous rape and abuse.”

Cohen also worked for Jaichand at the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights, where she focused on rural areas and the eviction of farm workers. Returning to South Africa, she said she worried she would not be able to put her international experience to work. But after years in private practice, she joined the South Africa Human Rights Commission in 2001. She has worked on issues of land violations, education and school-based violence. Most recently, she has coordinated the commission’s work with a global alliance of national human rights institutions. “Now, more than ever,” she said, “we need international human rights.”

Mbuyiseli Madlanga

Mbuyiseli Madlanga, LL.M. ’90 Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa

When Mbuyiseli Madlanga left South Africa for Notre Dame in 1989, Nelson Mandela was still in prison and supporters of apartheid refused to relinquish its systematic injustice. Eleven years later, Madlanga would be appointed as a justice to the highest court in the country.

While not quite as speedy or dramatic as Mandela’s rise from prison to president, it was still a dizzying ascent for the judge who returned to campus in April to teach a three-week class and speak at a conference reuniting early graduates of the LL.M Program in International Human Rights Law. “Things happen very quickly,” said Madlanga, 54. “I couldn’t have imagined it when I was watching Mandela get released from prison on TV while at Notre Dame.”

Madlanga grew up in Mount Frere, a rural town southwest of Durban, at a time when apartheid’s system of homelands confined non-whites to under-developed areas. He said he rarely came into contact with whites, yet apartheid was “so pervasive that it affected everything, including me; you had to have a pass to go into the white areas or else you were illegal in your own country.”

While most of the local men left town for work nearly all year, Madlanga’s father was a teacher there, supporting his extended family. His father encouraged him to study law, and the promising student excelled enough to win scholarships for several degrees, including at Notre Dame.

He fondly recalled his time in South Bend, when he lived in Moreau Seminary after finding the noise from undergraduate parties in his off-campus apartment too distracting. Notre Dame connections helped him land an internship at Amnesty International in Washington, D.C.

Returning home, he worked as a lawyer in Mthatha before being appointed in 1996 as a judge in Transkei Division of the High Court. In 2000, he was appointed to the Constitutional Court, where he served two years before stepping down to support his growing family in private practice.

He was reappointed to the Constitutional Court in 2013 for a 12-year term.

Garth Meintjes

Garth Meintjes, LL.M ’91 President of PILnet, the Global Network for Public Interest Law

Garth Meintjes couldn’t work as a lawyer in South Africa because – as a white conscientious objector – he refused to serve in the military that helped enforce apartheid. So he came to Notre Dame in 1990 to earn a master’s in international human rights.

“I was teaching constitutional law at a segregated university – that’s definitely ironic,” he said. “At the time, there was not a lot you could change through the courts, so I came looking for other tools that would make me more effective back home.”

Also ironically, Meintjes didn’t return for years and has spent most of his career working on international human rights out of the United States. He became associate director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which includes the LL.M. Program that graduated him, and stayed for 14 years to lead its transition into an international program.

“I was the last class of just South Africans,” he said. “The original idea was that the U.S. experience with the civil rights movement would be relevant and helpful to us, but we discovered that lawyers around the world struggle with human rights.”

For instance, the Center translated the proceedings of a Chilean truth commission and sent that document to South Africa and other places attempting to set up similar post-conflict legal structures.

Meintjes left the Center in 2004 to become a senior program manager at JEHT, a New York-based philanthropy that awarded millions of dollars in grants to underfunded justice programs around the world before the Bernie Madoff scandal bankrupted its patrons. He then went to the International Legal Foundation and became chief operating officer.

He was recently appointed president of PILnet, a New York nonprofit that promotes public interest law to protect human rights and deliver justice around the world. “I’m trying to figure out,” he said, “how to harness the capacity of the legal profession to serve human rights.”

Jacquie Cassette

Jacquie Cassette, LL.M. ’95 Director of Pro Bono and Human Rights practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, Johannesburg

Jacquie Cassette, like Meintjes, was teaching at a law school when she heard about the opportunity to study at Notre Dame.

“It was the end of the apartheid era and I couldn’t get a job,” she said. “Human rights at the time was radical left wing, not part of the mainstream.”

In 1994, she won a scholarship to study in South Bend that had been set up by Justice Richard Goldstone, who helped establish the LL.M. Program in International Human Rights Law. Goldstone would become an important influence in launching her career.

What stood out about her year at Notre Dame, she said, was meeting people from all over the world and learning their different approaches to the law. “These were cultural lessons,” she said.

After graduating, she won a year-long internship in The Hague to help prosecute war crimes for an arm of the United Nations. Goldstone, a member of the Constitutional Court, was on leave for two years there to be the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. When he returned to South Africa, Cassette went with him to act as his clerk and research assistant.

Cassette then practiced as a barrister for a dozen years before joining the major law firm of Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr in Johannesburg. Cassette said that human rights law “was simpler under apartheid for a progressive lawyer because you knew who the enemy was and what you needed to fight against.” Now, it’s more complicated because the political issues are more complex than black and white. Her work today is more about socio-economic equality, which is still lagging, rather than about political rights, which are finally guaranteed. She directs her firm’s pro-bono efforts, coordinating free legal representation for clients that can’t afford counsel.

Feature story to appear in the summer issue of ND Magazine.