Remembering the late Prof. Carmen Nathan on her Birthday

 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 Keile Miller, in 1934, to Rose Shamis and Lulu Miller, Pogrom refugees. She was born in Johannesburg South Africa.  Carmen, a tall woman of striking beauty, left school because Grandpa Lulu insisted she was way too smart to be there. Women did not need an education. They needed a man, love, marriage and many children. However mom’s life ultimately did anything but reflect that notion.

Mom married my dad Arthur Nathan when she was twenty years of age. Dad was in the fashion business and together they moved with to the seaside town of Port Elizabeth (PE) where mom became a model, a socialite and of course a mom, to me and my younger brother, Steve. I was born when she was only 22.

We lived the typical white privileged South African life of the Sixties, and though opposed to the Apartheid laws, we lived its full advantage. Like all white South Africans, mom and dad 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 housed a deep seated dissatisfaction, a gnawing at her intelligence and sensibilities. So when I was eight years of age and Steve six, and notably only after Lulu’s very sad and untimely death at age 56, mom decided she wanted to go to law school – and from that moment on there was no stopping her.

The PE social scene was abuzz with Carmen’s announcement. People were taking bets -“will she last six weeks or six months?” After all, the hurdles were huge and the odds of success stacked against her. She had to redo her matriculation year, all in a matter of weeks, to make the academic year, and time was of the essence. Language was a barrier because to attend the only University in Port Elizabeth, (UPE, now the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) one had to have a first language speaker’s grasp of Afrikaans, a language of the Apartheid government which we never spoke at home, and in fact mom could not speak it at all, at that time.

There was no stopping mom. Goodness knows how she did it. From the moment she took to her books, she had found her passion.  She studied constantly and with a vehemence that ultimately rendered a series of law degrees, 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. She was definitely perceived as that one woman who actually did THAT. If you imagine America at its most chauvinistic Sixties, times that by the tens and add a substantive sprinkling of Calvinism!

I have so many stories to reflect on and many have said I should write the book. But it has been hard for me, albeit 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 – years of blogging – I feel I owe it to her – and so here I break through the pain and here it is!

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 civil and human rights issues, those that even daunted apartheid. She became a champion for women’s rights in the country, and especially for black women, who suffered discrimination within the discrimination under 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 lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand Law School, to Professor at University of South Africa, to Dean of the Bophuthatswana (BOP) Law School, she embarked upon important research, was a practicing barrister (Advocate) of the Supreme Court, started the Consumer Council in BOP, headed The International Center for Medicine and Law, co-founded the Mmbana Cultural Center for children, disabled and the aged, and helped famed South African opposition leader Helen Suzman with legislation, and also served the President of Bophuthatswana and his cabinet, and even more.

Besides all the doing and her tough exterior, mom cared and she cared 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 letters in the mail (pre-email days), some of which I still have today. People in the most dire of circumstances pulled at her from all directions. They wanted her help, her opinion and her advice and she was always an ear and responded to every communication, never ignoring anyone. She was extremely generous in her giving. Her entire life revolved around her work and what was clearly a calling. Through this she loved and encouraged me and my brother. I went on to become a lawyer / and human rights advocate and Steve a pulmonologist lung transplant doctor.

Her students and colleagues adored her and she was most revered – this excerpt from a Eulogy by esteemed Prof. Sas Strauss:

“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.”


“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

Baby Melanie and Mom Carmen

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 back in those days, 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 if I had 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 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 accepted, albeit never discussed, and she visited us in the USA just two weeks before her death.

She was not ill, and her death was huge shock.

So interesting was Mom’s sense of fairness, equality and justice and 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” 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 in 2012.

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.

The dedication reads:

“For my daughter Melanie who knows all about it, for my son Steven who ought to know all about and for my parents Rose and Lulu who should have known all about it.”

Little did mom know that her fortuitous thinking was also precursor to her own daughter’s journey in the realm of equality activism, whose same-sex lesbian relationships would bring two daughters into this world and our family, some 15 years after she wrote this.  Unfortunately mom never got to meet Hannah and Refael. She would have adored them!

Mom and I had our historic moment when she represented me on the day I was admitted to the practice of law in the Supreme Court of South Africa. After I passed my Bar exam I was admitted into Court and Mom was the barrister who “admitted” me: Mom noted that she was admitting her daughter into Court as her “brother-in-law,” the terminology of those sexist days. Yes we were now brothers-in-law! Even the newspapers enjoyed that one!

Carmen had a biting brilliance so reflected in her sense of humor. She was as funny as she was foreboding and as entertaining as she was serious. She could have invented intersectionality as she devoured cultural understanding and respect for birthright and custom, always placing to the fore one’s unique experiences.

Prof Carmen Nathan Receiving the Order of The Leopard from President Lucas Mangope

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 the Royal 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. We may never know. Though there was suspicious surrounding circumstances our grief, pain and the complexities of distance may have left us inept.

Mom had mentioned in her will that she wanted a “Tswana /Jewish Burial” and for years had made us aware of her wishes. She often spoke of death, yet we were still so unprepared. We could not have imagined her wishes would translate in actuality.  As it turned out not even she could have conceived of the send off she was to receive. President Mangope did not know of her wish, yet approached Steve and me and asked if we would consider mom being buried in the graveyard for the Royal Tswana Chieftains and family. 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.

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.”


After the funeral when all family left for home,  I remained behind in Mmbatho for six weeks together with her beloved friend and companion Ma Violet Zinto, who had been my nanny when I was a small child.  As Ma Vi and I sifted through mom’s possessions, and tried to take care of business, each day hundreds lined up outside the front door to pay respects, bringing food, gifts and the Lord’s prayer. She was much loved. It was most comforting.

I miss my mom and more so today. My greatest wish for her is that she could have met her grandchildren,  my daughters Hannah and Refael and Steve’s sons Jack and Max.


Carmens children – Mel and Steve

Carmen’s Grandkids:


Mel’s daughters
Melanie and daughter Hannah – aged 15 at writing of this article
Melanie’s daughter Refael- aged 4, and 7 at writing of this article


Steve, Romy, Jack and Max


RIP our beloved Carmen, may your memory forever be a blessing.

BY MELANIE NATHAN, mostly a mom!
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“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


Prof Carmen Nathan Honored in Speech by SA Deputy Minister of Justice –

Human Rights Advocate Honored Carmen Nathan –

In Memoriam Carmen Nathan | Published in The International Journal of Medicine and Law –


Mom and President Mangope,






13 thoughts on “Remembering the late Prof. Carmen Nathan on her Birthday

  1. what a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman – she would have been so proud of your human rights work over the years – lots and lots of love

  2. WOW! How inspiring…Both of you–Mel and Mom! Thank you for sending the link to me. Those wonder-filled shivers visited me as I read your loving tribute! Hopefully she’s sending blessings from above at this trying time in our world’s history! L’Chaim, Karen Markowitz

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