The lives of political prisoners and a democratic, post-apartheid nation were at stake.
Gay McDougall, then a 38-year-old African-American activist, was helping defend the leadership of South African anti-apartheid group United Democratic Front (UDF), who were on trial in Durban, South Africa, charged with treason. She had just sent to South Africa a prestigious U.S. judge to be a trial observer when she received word: Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge, a key lawyer for the UDF whose own husband was assassinated for representing African National Congress (ANC) members, had been attacked and killed in the driveway of her home. It was a dark moment for everyone involved, one that “cut to the core,” said McDougall.
McDougall had worked closely with Mxenge and her husband. She financed their representation of political activists by surreptitiously channeling money into South Africa from the international community to pay their fees, an illicit activity according to apartheid laws. McDougall’s clandestine efforts ultimately helped free detainees, prisoners, and UDF activists, and Victoria Mxenge posthumously received the national Order of Luthuli in Silver for her sacrifices made in the fight against oppression.
On December 8, nearly a decade after Mxenge’s honor, McDougall, the Leitner Center’s Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, received in Pretoria the sister prize to that of Mxenge: the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo (Silver). Bestowed by South Africa’s president to “eminent foreign persons” for “friendship to South Africa,” the award will be given to McDougall “for her excellent contribution in the fight against apartheid and injustices meted out on the black majority,” according to the citation.
Although awarded primarily for McDougall’s work in hundreds of cases involving thousands of prisoners over a 15-year period in South Africa, the citation also mentions her organization of a national movement of Americans who engaged in civil disobedience to oppose apartheid; her oversight of the first democratic election in 1994 as one of five international members of South Africa’s 16-member Independent Electoral Commission; and her supervision of the Commission on Independence for Namibia that led to the country’s self-determination in 1989.
“My activism, first and foremost, stems from my experience in Georgia where I grew up during the Jim Crow era. The anti-apartheid movement was a natural next step,” said McDougall, the first black woman to integrate Agnes Scott College, a formerly all-white Presbyterian liberal arts school in Decatur, Georgia, before attending Yale Law School in the early 1970s.
When asked to describe the challenges faced by the Electoral Commission in South Africa in 1994 she said: “We faced orchestrated violence day-in and day-out, but my biggest fear was that we would fail in organizing the elections. Our only task was to hold elections to transfer of power. If that did not happen we would have let down all the people who had sacrificed for decades, died, had their lives ruined in the fight against apartheid.”
From her work in South Africa, McDougall went to the United Nations as an Expert Member for the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the body that oversees the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Last June, the UN reelected her to the post. She will travel to Geneva in January to oversee compliance with the obligations established under the treaty by governments across the world.
In Geneva and back home in New York, McDougall plans to involve Fordham students in the research and the questioning of government leaders on their anti-discrimination policies, with the hope of developing her experience into a course.
“We thought we (the anti-apartheid demonstrators) were the last great movement against racism,” said McDougall, who will return to teaching human rights law this spring. “There seem to be many more.”