Jacob van Garderen, who has been the national director of Lawyers for Human Rights for the past 10 years, is stepping down to go into private practice. Former Labour Court Judge Urmila Bhoola will take over from today. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency/ANA
CHAMPION for human rights, Jacob van Garderen has fought for the rights of the most vulnerable in our society for nearly two decades, 10 years of them as national director of Lawyers for Human rights (LHR).

Now he is stepping down to go into private practice, but he says his heart remains within the LHR “family”, with whom he will continue to work on an ad hoc basis.

His colleagues, who bid him farewell during a function held in his honour last Thursday, all agreed that he would be remembered for his more than 19 years with the organisation as a person set on treating others with dignity and respect.

Human rights is his passion and what he has fiercely worked to achieve for the vulnerable.

He has fought many legal battles over the years to obtain some rights and dignity, especially for the refugees who have little or no voice in the country.

Van Garderen started off his career at LHR in 1999 by working on the refugee project.

J acob van Garderen. Video: Zelda Venter

He later headed this programme and developed it into the successful Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme it is today.

Elizabeth Matsosa, or Aunty Lizzie as she is fondly known, who is now retired but worked for LHR for 27 years, recalled how Van Garderen was during the start of his career at LHR as the hero of the refugees.

“When he came into the office we used to say ‘here comes the Jacob of the refugee masses’. This is because they used to wait for him at the office in their scores. When he arrived, they knew their problems would be solved.”

Judge Jody Kollapen , who previously served as commissioner of the SA Human Rights Commission and was also a member of LHR, hailed Van Garderen as a man of good standing, yet humble.

“The task of leading a pivotal human rights and public interest law organisation such as LHR is no easy task. Managing feisty and independent lawyers, raising sufficient funds, making strategic choices on cases to litigate and advancing the public profile of the organisation are all vital to its very existence.”

“Jacob has done that so remarkably well for the past 10 years and with great dignity and humility but with a steely determination which he is able to disguise quite effectively with his gentle smile.

“I fondly recall the two of us taking the Lindela train to Mozambique some years ago to monitor the deportation of migrants and other opportunities to work together which always demonstrated a humanity that was centred and committed to both the recognition of the dignity and self-worth of all and the improvement of the quality of lives of all,” Judge Kollapen said.

Urmila Bhoola. Video: Zelda Venter

World-renowned professor of human rights, Christof Heyns, also a former director of LHR, described Van Garderen as an exceptional person.

“He is one of those exceptional people whom one sometimes finds in NGOs - totally dedicated to the idea that the world can and must be a much better place, but who understands and allows for the constraints that need to be negotiated to get there, without allowing that to slow him down. He is a trooper.”

Van Garderen said it had been a privilege to have been with LHR for almost two decades.

“I have learnt so much during this period.

“The organisation is doing incredible work in promoting and advancing human rights.

“While it is sad to leave the organisation, I am happy that Urmila Bhoola is taking over as the new national director.

“I am confident that she will steer the organisation to greater heights.”

Bhoola, a veteran in the field of law, who also has a passion for human rights, said she was very excited to take over.

“I look forward to starting this role at LHR. It is an organisation that is reflective of the fact that human rights is under threat and it has worked consistently to ensure compliance with human rights and social justice. “

“I look forward to continue to lead the organisation the way Jacob has done.”

Bhoola, a former Labour Court judge, is among others, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

She is also a seasoned human rights lawyer and author of various publications.