Prof. Carmen Nathan passed away at age 56, way too young and so accomplished: “A Mother and a friend to all, whose selfless commitment to justice has imparted a legacy abundant in love, compassion and wisdom.”
by Melanie Nathan, November 20, 2012.
My mother was born Carmen Miller, in 1934 to Rose and Lulu Miller. She was born in Johannesburg South Africa. Carmen, a tall beautiful young women, left school because Grandpa Lulu thought she was way too smart to be there. Women did not need an education. They needed love and marriage. However mom’s life did anything but reflect that notion.
Mom met my dad Arthur Nathan when she was twenty years of age. Dad was in the fashion business, and mom who had been doing secretarial work, moved with dad to Port Elizabeth where she became a model, a mom and a socialite. I was born when she was only 22.
We lived the typical white privileged South African life of the 60’s. My parents were against the Apartheid laws. However, like everyone else we employed domestic servants, nannies, cooks, drivers and gardeners. For all purposes and by most people’s standards, life was indeed easy and good for Carmen. But she was not satisfied and so when I was eight years of age and ironically after Lulu’s very sad and untimely death, mom decided she wanted to go to law school – and there was no stopping her.
The social scene was abuzz with Carmen’s announcement. People were taking bets; “will she last six weeks or will she last six months?” After all, the hurdles were huge and the odds of success stacked against her. She had to redo her matriculation year, which she did in a matter of weeks, and then attend the University of Port Elizabeth, which taught mostly in Afrikaans, a language we never spoke at home and one mom could not speak at all.
But there was no stopping her. From the moment mom took to her books, she was like ‘a fish in water.’ She studied hard and passed the series of law degrees that followed, supra magna cum laude. They wrote newspaper articles about her with “Beauty and Brains,” as their headers. It was not a usual feat during those times.
I have so many stories to reflect on and many have said I should write the book. But it has been hard for me, even all these years later, to pen my mom’s life, even in this short form. In a funny way though, because I have drifted into writing – hour and hours of blogging – I feel I owe it to her – and so here I break my ice!
Mom became illustrious in her career. Once she had her law degrees and established herself academically with books that law students still use today and the first layman Nolo type book, she took on human rights issues that daunted apartheid. She became a champion for women’s rights in a country where black women especially, suffered discriminatory laws that exacerbated the harsh apartheid laws.
She wore many hats and did more in her short time than entire organizations accomplish over decades. From Dean of the Bophuthatswana (BOP) Law School, important research, Advocate of the Supreme Court, starting the Consumer Council in BOP, heading The International Center for Medicine and Law, co-founding the Mmbana Cultural Center for children, disabled and the aged, and so much more.
Besides all the doing and her tough exterior, my mom cared and she cared very very deeply about all people and those who suffered hardship under the unjust law. Her TV and radio shows put her in the public eye and she received thousands of e-mails, some of which I still have today. People in he most dire of circumstances pulled at her from all directions and they wanted her help, her opinion and her advice and she was extremely generous in her giving. Her entire life revolved around her work and what was clearly a calling.
“Over many years Carmen Nathan was in the forefront of the women’s rights movement in Southern Africa. An ardent campaigner for human rights, she took the lead in reorganizing two highly successful conferences on Medicine and Law and Human Rights under the auspices of the Unibo International Centre of Medicine and Law. As chairperson of the Mmbana Foundation since 1986, which established the impressive Mmbana Cultural Centre in Mmbatho, she was actively involved in promoting culture, particularly amongst the young Tswana people. She was the driving force behind several important Bills which resulted in laws being put in the Statute books of Bophuthtswana. Amongst these was The Consumer Affairs Act of 1984.” Prof. Sas Strauss
Today I wonder about what it would be like if mom were still alive. I know, that despite the hard time she had accepting my sexuality, she would have evolved fully by now. And I blame myself for not being as candid with her about my sexuality from the start. Even though we were extremely close, I think our relationship would have been so much more, had I not housed so much shame and not been afraid to open up about myself. I think I may have also made better choices had I had mom’s advice along the way. But instead I was so guilt-ridden and so I kept to myself and deprived us both of what could have been.
However in the years before she died, I was with a partner who she liked and she visited us in the USA just two weeks before she died. She was not ill, and her death was huge shock.
So interesting though, was Mom’s sense of fairness, equality and justice and so when she wrote her lay book, “You Your Family and the Law,” all that time ago in 1983 (remember this was super conservative apartheid South Africa) she included “Gay relationships” in two sections.
One section discussing “Conception and legitimacy: Artificial Insemination” where she wrote, under the title “The ‘gay’ or homosexual family:
The legal rules are such that it is possible for two women living together in a lesbian relationship each to have their own children. Each one may have her own child but the child is born illegitimately (under the law in SA) and the mother will have exclusive parental power over the child, irrespective of whether the child is conceived naturally. The gay couple, will not however , be able legally to share parental power, since it is impossible for them to marry, and outside of marriage, and outside of marriage, it is impossible for a child to be adopted by more than one person. There is no legal means to protect or recognize the relationship that the other woman (“the maddy”) enjoys with the child.’
She then goes on to discuss how even more difficult it was for men living together as a couple to have children under the law.
Mom did not realize it at the time, but she may well have been the first pro-gay equality activist in South Africa, for expressing the shortcomings of the law in this way. And quite frankly I never made that connection until now, reviewing her writing on this her birthday.
I do not believe that anything had been written and published on the subject before this – though I do stand to be corrected. As a matter of interest when mom wrote this book, I was a final year law student in my LL B program and was so excited to have the opportunity to be hired to write the back index for her now historic book.
Before mom died she received the greatest honor that could be bestowed on anyone by the Tswana tribe. President Lucas Mangope, her dear friend and Chief of the Tswana people, awarded her with The Order of the Leopard, to acknowledge all the work she had done in Bophuthatswana, on behalf of the Tswana people. My brother Steve, who lives in D.C. now, and I traveled to Mmbatho for the ceremony. We also traveled there to attend Mom’s inaugural lecture when she was awarded her Professorship, and then sadly for her funeral and the consecration of her tombstone which coincided with the first Prof Carmen Nathan Memorial lecture, a year later.
Mom’s passing came as a huge shock. It was unexpected and we are still uncertain as to the true nature of the cause.
President Mangope asked if we would entertain the idea of mom being buried in the graveyard for Tswana Chieftains. While this seemed a big decision for a devout Jew, it was such a great honor that we dived into how to solve the problem of sanctifying her space as “Jewish.” We found a willing Rabbi Zeiden, who was brought by helicopter to the very remote Motswedi, where he made it all possible.
Mom had mentioned in her will that she wanted a Tswana /Jewish Burial and her wish was granted, with a funeral she herself could not have imagined. Over 4,000 people showed up to the tiny remote village in Bophuthastwana and mom’s coffin was carried as tradition provides, in rotation, by cabinet members, politicians, academic, soccer players, family and dear friends, and she was laid to rest in Motswedi, to the chanting of traditional Jewish prayer and the choral magnificence of Tswana gospel.
I composed Mom’s Tombstone and it reads:
“A Mother and a friend to all, whose selfless commitment to justice has imparted a legacy abundant in love, compassion and wisdom. Deeply loved, sorely missed and always remembered by her daughter, son, mother, sister, brother, family and friends. May her dear soul in rest in peace.”
I miss my mom and more so today. My greatest wish for her is that she could have met her grandchildren, Max, Jack, Hannah and Refael.
RIP our beloved Carmen.
By Melanie Nathan
“Carmen Nathan will be remembered as a loving mother, a brilliant lawyer and an academic who contributed much to legal thought in Southern Africa in particular, and an idealistic and tireless worker who devoted a large part of her life to the under-privileged members of her community.” SAS STRAUSS
READ MORE IN MEMORIAM Article in Journal of medicine and Law by Prof. Sas Strauss