Tributes to a great South African and global leader

31 March 2021
Christof Heyns – 1959-2021

“The STIAS community is deeply shocked and saddened by the untimely and unexpected passing of Professor Christof Heyns, Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria and STIAS fellow and board member,” said Edward Kirumira, STIAS Director. “Heyns was a truly inspirational human being and a continental and global leader who will be sorely missed. His most recent work as the main drafter of UN documents on the right to peaceful assembly and guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement couldn’t be more topical and necessary in the times in which we live. He was a great African and global mind who leaves behind an important legacy.”

Professor Christof Heyns was Professor of Human Rights Law at UP, where he also directed the Centre for Human Rights and was previously the Dean of the Faculty of Law. He held BLC, LLB, BA (Hons) and MA (Philosophy) cum laude degrees from UP, a Master’s of Law from Yale Law School (where he was a Fulbright Scholar); and a PhD degree on the history and legal aspects of the non-violent part of the struggle against racial domination in South Africa.

He was also a Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, and a Fulbright Fellow at the Human Rights Programme at Harvard Law School. At STIAS Christof served on the Board of Directors and was also in residence as a STIAS Fellow at the time of his death.

The countless highlights in his illustrious career include advising international, regional and national entities on human rights issues. In August 2010 he was appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and in 2017 he was the South African candidate for election to the UN Human Rights Committee, the treaty monitoring body of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Within the continent he has served on many occasions as technical adviser on human rights to the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Specifically, he was adviser to the African Commission in developing its influential General Comment on the Right to Life, adopted in 2015. He was also one of three experts appointed to conduct and chair the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi.

Heyns regularly conducted human rights seminars at Oxford University and at the American University in Washington DC, where he was an Adjunct Professor, and served on the editorial boards of academic journals in South Africa, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Brazil, Uganda, Turkey and Costa Rica.

In 2020, he was the main drafter of two important UN documents – the General Comment 37 of the UN Human Rights Committee, which offers global guidance on peaceful assembly and the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less Lethal Weapons, both were released in July 2020. These documents summarised and restated the international law standards and UN standards on peaceful and not-so-peaceful assembly.  He presented an overview of these important documents at his seminar at STIAS on 9 March. See

Speaking of the importance of the right to peaceful assembly, he said: “Peaceful assemblies are often a way or pursuing truth and establishing the extent of support for an idea. They have become a major force in society and an integral part of social change. People without other forms of power use this to address what they see as structural violence – where the system itself works against them. Many of the rights we take for granted today came through this kind of disruption,” But he also pointed to the need for rules for both sides. “They are collective gatherings versus the power of the state. Because this is such a potentially disruptive terrain, the different parties need rules of engagement.”

Also in touch with his artistic side, Heyns was a huge music lover and a member of the University of Pretoria’s Law rock band, ‘The Bandits’, which regularly performed at UP Law Faculty Festivals.

He leaves behind his wife, Fearika, his son Adam Heyns, his daughters, Willemien Rust and Renée Heyns, son-in-law Arné Francois Rust, mother Renée Heyns and grandson Isak Rust born in February 2020.

Christof Heyns in conversation during his residency in 2019

STIAS Board members, friends and fellows in residence sent the following messages of condolence and remembrance:

“This is a shocking and saddening loss. My memory of meeting Christof Heyns at STIAS after the AAB meeting is fresh, very fresh. His brief conversation with me was very forward looking, focused on expanding his networks and literature, especially on matters of human rights and various civic and social movements in the rest of the continent. His was not the attitude of a person who in any way suspected an imminent death. What a great loss! May he rest in perfect peace. Do please extend my condolences to his family.” – Francis B. Nyamnjoh

“This is a tremendous shock. How little did I know that, when we were corresponding towards the end of last year about the African Webinar platform for doctoral students in law in Africa that was setting up, it would be the last time that we would be in contact. His work on human rights internationally, but especially his work on promoting human rights on our own continent and the deep relationships that he brokered on the continent, is a magnificent monument to him. It is hard to realise that this energetic worker for a better world will no longer be firing off all those brilliant ideas. A great South African has passed away.” – Danie Visser

“Suddenly he was there in our small community of STIAS fellows. Open-minded, curious, friendly, demonstrating what STIAS intends to be: a platform for exchanging ideas without disciplinary boundaries.  He arrived with a reputation second to none, but talked to everybody. Lunches with him were opportunities where not the (excellent) food was the most important, but the intersection of his and your ideas. On the day of his seminar we heard him and saw the family with a grandchild happily crawling around.”

“The expression ‘Fröhliche Wissenschaft’ may be inextricably linked to Nietzsche, but Christof demonstrated what it could mean in daily life. Despite the fact that his themes and tasks were not always very joyful. Yesterday, this all stopped unexpectedly. ‘A legal giant’ wrote the UP. This is true, but I was struck by the poem at the end of the obituary: ‘When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder…’

Although it was only for a short time, he has enriched our life. With deep condolences,” – Ed & Inge Noort

“I’m greatly saddened to hear this. I was so impressed by his seminar 9 March on peaceful assemblies, and he seemed then like he would be lovely and a delight to know.  John and I send our deepest condolences to Professor Heyns’ family. With sorrow and love,” – Regenia Gagnier

“I join you all in deep sorrow for Chistof’s unexpected loss. It is hard to believe and will be even harder to cope with his conspicuous absence. I’ll hold with special tenderness, his sparkling eyes and mellow words. My most heartfelt condolences to his family, fellows and friends. Know that my thoughts and prayers will remain with you and Christof during this difficult time.” – Marcella Faria

“I also want to express my deep condolences to the family and friends of Christof Heyns. I did not know him before I met him here at STIAS in recent weeks. I had some very fruitful exchanges with him on questions of peace, human rights and also on Gandhi. Just last Friday morning I had a long chat with him in the entry hall at STIAS. We talked about patriotism versus cosmopolitanism and quickly shared our interpretations of John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ that we both have used in class. I did not know that Christof was also playing in the UP Law’s rock band ‘The Bandits’. Now I understand better why we quickly discussed Leonard Cohen last Friday, too. He could recite many texts of Cohen by heart and told me that he recently listened often to Cohen’s song ‘Nancy’ with its references to a ‘House of Honesty’ and a ‘House of Mystery’ when he was driving to STIAS. We finally also talked about Cohen’s song ‘Almost Like the Blues’ with the criticism of ‘the great professor’ who claimed that ‘there is no God in heaven / There is no hell below / So says the great professor / Of all there is to know’. We professors sometimes forget that our knowledge is limited. Being aware of these limits he told me with laughter that his wife Fearika would sometimes use Cohen’s line about ‘the great professor’ to remind him that even professors may sometimes be wrong. Supporting human rights wherever we see the necessity to strengthen them may be the best way to appreciate Christof’s legacy. May he rest in peace.” – Wolfgang Palaver

“I participate in the sorrow of Christof’s family, his friends and colleagues. Inspired by Christof, we will have to continue his work.  May his memory be a blessing for all of us.” – Ephraim Meir

“We are all shocked and saddened by this news. My heartfelt sympathies to the family.”- Brian Arthur

“I share everyone’s sorrow and shock. I cannot quite believe this awful news. I had become very fond of Christof in a very short time and we had been reading each other’s work and exchanging feedback. I notice too that I shared a birthday with him, the day before I came to STIAS. It’s hard to imagine our cohort without him. I send my condolences to all and especially to his family. It’s hard to imagine what they must be going through.” – Tamar Garb

“This is such shocking news and a terrible loss.  It is hard to think of this cohort without Christof’s jovial, energetic presence.  My condolences to his wife and family, and to STIAS staff and fellows.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga

“This is unexpected and sad news! My heart goes out to Christof’s family and I will hold them in prayer. May his soul rest in peace.”- Emmanuel K. Akyeampong

“This is indeed terribly sad news. We were talking a couple of days ago about the film he and his son made on the life and work of his late father. He promised to send it to me… My deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.” – Mamadou Diawara

“This is truly sad and unexpected news. My deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues. It was a pleasure to have known him as a 2021 Fellow, even for this short while.” – Patrice Haynes

Is this life still to be grasped?
It evaporates under my fingers
Like snow crystals, and falls from me
Like tender apple blossoms in the frost
‘Besinning’, WEG Louw, Afrikaans poet – own translation.
This incomprehensible transition from larger and more vibrant and energetic than life itself, to RIP. – Louise du Toit

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS

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