Professor Christof Heyns - In Memoriam

30 Mar 2021 - 07:30

I am deeply saddened to inform you of the passing of Professor Christof Heyns, former Dean of Law at University of Pretoria. Prof Heyns passed away yesterday morning [28 March 2021] while hiking.

Many of us considered Prof Heyns a colleague, friend or mentor. He was an incredibly good friend of the Faculty. In his UN work, he never missed a moment to share and discuss with us some of the major human rights issues the UN was working on. Towards the end of 2019, the Faculty hosted Prof Heyns, then a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, for a lunchtime discussion on managing public assemblies as the Committee was developing a General Comment on the subject. When he was UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, he gave an illuminating public lecture in the OR Tambo Moot Court on the implications of drone strikes for human rights.

To me Prof Heyns was something of a paradox. He was an unassuming, gentle and kind-hearted human being, and yet a man teeming with grand ideas which somehow he managed to implement -- always. An indefatigable human rights activists and scholar, Heyns never separated human rights theory from practice, and immersed himself in both throughout his life.

As an academic, he gave up the pursuit of personal glory in research and committed himself wholly to teaching, supporting and nurturing young Africans from around the continent to be champions of human rights. He initiated ambitious Africa-focussed academic programmes and research projects that reached many in South Africa and the rest of the continent. As a result of his efforts, Heyns enjoys the distinction of being one of the most impactful academics as far as human rights education is concerned. A considerable number of his former students are throughout the continent cabinet ministers, professors, judges of domestic, regional and international courts, senior professionals in international organisations, and leaders of civil society and government agencies and departments. Many more will continue to thrive in the years to come.

As a human rights activist, independent expert and leader, Prof Heyns formed and led human rights organisations that have worked with and championed the cause of victims of human rights throughout Africa and the world, trained human rights defenders, lobbied governments for greater human rights accountability and compliance,  and worked with various international organisations to improve human rights practices, policies and laws.

UP’s Centre for Human Rights describes Prof Heyns as an internationalist who found great pleasure in regularly teaching at various international universities as a Fellow and Scholar … "There were so many dimensions to Christof, each of which he inhabited so fully and so completely. Whether it was rowing, being a father, a family man, a grandfather, playing the guitar, appreciating a good book or a piece of music, or working for human rights. He was a good and deeply moral man, integrity personified, warm-hearted, had a quirky sense of humour, and was ready with a witticism for every occasion. His enthusiasm was boundless and infectious, leaving no one untouched whose life intersected with his. He was immeasurably wise.”

Prof Heyns was for many years Director of the Centre for Human Rights before he became Dean of Law from 2007 to 2010 at the University of Pretoria. In 2010 – 2016, he became UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. From 2017 to 2020, he was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. 

Prof Heyns is also well known for the All-Africa Human Rights Moot Competition, the South African National Schools Moot Competition, and the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Competition which he helped found and promote. 

Prof Heyns will be missed terribly.

Professor Danwood Chirwa, Dean of Law, University of Cape Town | 29 March 2021