In Memoriam: Professor Christof Heyns

Gone, But Never Forgotten




We are deeply saddened by the untimely death of Christof Heyns, a person who did so much in building and protecting the rule of law in South Africa and the world. At a time when the very edifice of the rule of law in South Africa is under threat, his commanding presence and commitment to this value is sorely missed.

During the final dark years of apartheid, Johan van der Westhuizen and Christof Heyns established in 1986 the Centre for Human Rights (CHR), at the then white conservative University of Pretoria (UP), an achievement in itself. Christof’s motto was, as the motto of the CHR, “From Human Wrongs to Human Rights”. With an extraordinary zest for life and optimism about a non-racial future for South Africa based on human rights and the rule of law, he worked tirelessly for a new democratic South Africa. In those days already, he was a missionary for justice and an image of a different future of what Afrikaner people could be in this society. His vision also enclosed the rest of Africa, and he became the expert on the protection of human rights in Africa.

Soon after the Community Law Centre (CLC) was established in 1990 at the University of the Western Cape (since 2015 renamed the Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights, DOI), the CHR reached out to Dullah Omar, CLC’s founding director, to establish an inclusive partnership across the prevailing university divide in South Africa. The CLC thus became one of the founding partners of the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition at its inaugural event in Harare in 1992.

After Christof assumed the CHR directorship in 1999, the CHR launched the Masters’ Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa (HRDA) in 2000, with the CLC as one of the founding partner institutions that both taught in the programme in Pretoria and received students for the second semester to write their dissertations. At the end of each year, we joined in celebrating the graduation of these students in Pretoria. Through this partnership, the CLC gained a talented crop of students, some of whom continued with their doctoral studies and/or even still work at UWC. In 2003, the CHR also established a partnership with the UWC Law Faculty in presenting the Masters’ Programme in Trade and Investment Law in Africa. In many formal and informal ways, the relationship with CHR continued. It also continued with Christof after he left the CHR.

Over the past five years, the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA) at UP, of which Christof was the director, and the SARChI Chair in Multilevel Government at DOI have hosted the Stellenbosch Annual Seminar on Constitutionalism in Africa.

In June 2020, DOI and ICLA convened a successful expert panel titled “The Pandemic and International Law: Thinking about humanitarian impact and human rights implications” to discuss timely and pressing issues such as the duty of cooperation, responsibility for outbreaks, and immigration-related issues in the context of COVID 19. The first segment of the panel discussed the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations and its consequences for humanitarian action. The second segment, where Christof spoke, focussed on the extent to which the pandemic justifies interference with individual rights and liberties.

As a very active member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Prof Heyns served as a rapporteur for General Comment 37 on the right of peaceful assembly. In April 2019, he engaged with UWC post-graduate students in a Conversation Session on issues such as the definition of ‘peaceful’, online assembly and technological means to stifle peaceful assembly, such as facial recognition cameras and internet shutdowns. Many students attended, and were enthralled by his passion for social justice. Prof Christof Heyns also co-supervised with staff at the DOI, and often served as an examiner.

Christof will be remembered as a true mensch – warm hearted, engaging, energetic, always smiling – deeply committed to the positive contribution that the rule of law and human rights can make to the advancement of humanity.

  • Jaap de Visser, Nico Steytler, Benyam Mezmur, Jacques de Villle, Wessel le Roux and Riekie Wandrag
  • all the alumni of the Masters’ degree programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa (HRDA) at UWC’s Faculty of Law: Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi, Usang Maria Assim, Annette May, Henry-Paul Gichana, Thandeka Khoza, Yonatan Fessha, Anthony Diala, Carmel Van Niekerk, Chesne Albertus, Jamil D Mujuzi and Nimrod Muhumuza
  • and all other members of the Dullah Omar Institute and the Faculty of Law at the University of the Western Cape