Andrea Durbach

Andrea Durbach (pic from UNSW web page)

Note from Jane:

The evening before I interviewed Andrea I attended a screening of award winning documentary  A Common Purpose.  From the film’s blurb:

Andrea Durbach, a Sydney resident since 1989 and currently director of the Australian Human Rights Centre, returns to South Africa to meet her clients from the landmark Upington trial. In 1985, when Apartheid was at its most violent, a black policeman was burnt to death and 25 people were convicted of his murder; 14 were sentenced to hang. The dramatic battle for justice – as told by Durbach, Independent journalist John Carlin and the accused – and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation hearings are both revelatory and inspirational.

It’s really worth seeing this film if you can, or reading Andrea’s book about the case Upington

This profile cannot got into depth about the details of the case and Andrea’s role, but I have tried to pull out her leadership experiences, and discussed them in the context of her later leadership roles in the consumer, public interest, and human right movements in Australia.

Andrea was born in 1957 in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived until well into her adulthood.  She has an older brother, who left South Africa after refusing to be conscripted, and came to Australia.   Andrea’s parents also eventually emigrated to Australia.

Both sides of Andrea’s family were Jewish, although many of her mother’s relatives converted to Catholicism during and after World War 2.  Andrea’s father – a businessman – was quite religious, and her mother not at all.  Andrea says she was influenced by her father’s values – “without even knowing, I absorbed the idea that you are in this world to make a difference, to give to humanity. And not just in a material sense, in an intellectual sense, to be curious, to have compassion”.

Andrea’s mother was a journalist who was active in progressive politics in South Africa, often writing about black musicians and artists.  Andrea was also influenced by a cousin of her mother’s who as a professor in medicine took action on behalf of the National Union of Students and against the government and was placed under house arrest.  “Bill shaped me – I saw a form of injustice (against a man of deep courage and conviction) that made me very unsettled, angry, upset.”

While conscious of being Jewish, it did not have a direct impact – not at school, where she attended a progressive all white girls’ school – but Andrea reacted to exclusion or inequality, such as racism or anti-Semitism  and this had an impact on her later life in human rights advocacy.

Immediately after finishing high school in 1976 Andrea was an exchange student in the USA, where she attended school and college and worked for a Democratic congressman in the summer holidays.  This was the first time she experienced the freedom of  being able to read whatever she wanted, meet with whoever she wanted, and where she crystallised her intention to become a lawyer.

I was keen to argue for rights – I loved the argument – I liked to test and to challenge, and I was certainly raised in a home that required that of all of us, and I think in South Africa, you either were complicit or you fought it (the system).

Andrea did a BA and LLB at Cape Town University, studied law and development at Warwick University and then went to work for a local law firm which had a strong involvement in legal work of a political nature (one of the partners was Nelson Mandela’s lawyer).   Andrea quickly got involved and most of her work for the next 7 years was on behalf of black and anti-apartheid activists.

In 1988 she became the solicitor for the Upington 25 (see above) Her barrister, Anton Lubowski,  was assassinated in the early stages of preparing the appeal.   Andrea’s experience of leadership was an extraordinary trial by fire, which is described in detail in her book Upington.

After the case was concluded, Andrea, clearly experiencing a form of post traumatic stress, visited a Jungian counsellor who suggested to her that she was too defended “becoming too armored, breaking a part of yourself away from yourself”.  Although initially unwilling to acknowledge the impact that the case had on her, 3 months later Andrea found herself on a plane to Sydney where her brother was living.

In Sydney she got a job at a major law firm as a legal consultant, and did night school to qualify as a lawyer in Australia.  The Upington 25 appeal was postponed for a year, and during that time, Andrea worked on the case from Australia at night, doing the necessary legal work as well as arranging for the presence of  international observers and diplomats and media.   “Giving the visibility to the case was so essential.”

Andrea returned for the Appeal, and soon after her return, was offered a position with. the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), which undertook a considerable amount of consumer protection and human rights work.  She worked at PIAC from 1991 until 2004, rising from Assistant Director, to Head of the Legal Practice, then to PIAC Director, and Director of its off-shoot organisation the Public Interest Law Clearing House, an organisation providing the community with access to pro bono legal representation.

At PIAC I felt like I’d come home – people that I’d never met before who were doing work that resonated with me.  It was a big challenge and an invitation to discover a part of Australia I didn’t know before.

I asked Andrea what were some of the highlights of her leadership work with PIAC.

Andrea says the key elements of her leadership at PIAC were “having a perspective that saw the possibility of change and pushed boundaries.  I think I was quite an innovator in terms of the content of the work we did.  I hated getting stale and stagnating.  I recognised that projects and litigation have end points and we need to move on, and allow creativity to flourish and build momentum.”

I’m a collaborator – I need to work with people, shape ideas with people, and know that the ideas are being challenged, and reworked.  We grew the team at PIAC.  I brought together a lot of fine people.

Also, I like to ride the wave of best opportunity, and I think I understand the cycles of an organisation – you will go through tough times and you can get through.  My experiences in South Africa demonstrated the need to appreciate the cycles of an organisation, and not be too worried about it. I can see the opportunity to pull back, to consolidate, to be resilient.

Andrea found the people management side of leadership sometimes difficult – particularly given the passionate and committed people that were employed at PIAC.

Managing people’s expectations and validating people – the organisation wasn’t able to value them by remuneration so we had to value them in other ways.  Governance was also hard – because there were so many requirements from funders and from our Boards.  Also the loss of key staff and Board members was difficult, and keeping things moving in the interim periods was important.

Andrea’s decision to move on from PIAC in 2004 was prompted by a need “not to become too identified with an organization or it with you” and that perhaps she needed to test what came next and  “should leap into the absolute unknown”. She was offered the opportunity to run the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales as an Associate Professor.

The Australian Human Rights Centre has been in existence for more than 25 years, and Andrea has focused on bringing together academics and others  to work on multi-disciplinary human rights projects.   Andrea finds great freedom in academia, there’s less focus on managing people (and the continual need to find resources to pay salaries), and more ability to generate and promulgate ideas.

In June 2011, Andrea was also appointed as the Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner.  This is a part-time, temporary appointment and Andrea manages both her Human Rights Centre position and this new position.   Her work as a Deputy Commissioner involves leading a small team of staff on existing and new areas of work, and Andrea has already taken the opportunity to bring together the academic and Commission worlds in a new project on domestic violence and sexual assault of female students.

I asked Andrea what differences she could see between women and men leaders in the consumer and human rights movements.  Her answers resonated with many of the answers of other interviewees – but Andrea also talks about the need for male and female “energies” within leaders.

For Andrea, no one leader exemplifies all the leadership characteristics she admires – it’s more the attributes she sees in a range of individuals. “The ability to be warm and funny and to connect with people, managing the balance between being a people person and standing aside, being understated in a leadership style, having resolve and intellectual rigour and humour.”

Humour plays a huge part in being an interesting and good leader.  I love good humour, and I love people who don’t take things terribly seriously all the time.  I think there’s a place for lightness and I think good leadership is able to gauge when those opportunities arise, when one can be light and warm and open instead of feeling this need to lead in ways that are sharp and aggressive, and I think humour is a marvellous weapon in leadership.

Andrea also talked about the intersection between leadership and art.  She is bringing Eve Ensler (an American playwright, performer, feminist and activist, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues) out to Australia to speak about the role of theatre in human rights work.  Andrea sees Eve as an extraordinary leader, “a rights innovator through her writing and performances” – even though she thinks that Eve would probably see herself primarily as an artist.   Andrea also believes many writers to be leaders – “and I almost revere those leaders more than the more obvious ones”.

Andrea has a varied life outside of work.  Her strong need to be creative emerges in writing and singing..  She has a strong interest in jazz and is a regular yoga and meditation practitioner.   Getting the right word and emphasis is important for Andrea in all her communication, and reading poetry is often an enormous help to her in crafting her public presentations.

Andrea was a partner in her law firm in Cape Town, and she could have considered a move into a senior government job here in Australia, but for her the concept of a “career path” is very foreign, even distasteful.

There are other features of work that are more important to me [ than financial recompense ] …  I get so rewarded by the work I do, that it’s almost immeasurable.  The people I meet, the flexibility I have, the content of the work I do, the exposure to experiences, the travel, they all add up to make a damn good package actually.  I do work that I never imagined work could be.

Comments welcomed on Andrea’s fascinating life so far, and the various ways she has undertaken leadership roles. 


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
This entry was posted in Durbach, Andrea, Women leaders in the consumer movement. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Andrea Durbach

  1. Andrea is an inspiration to every human rights lawyer I know, and certainly me! Thanks for this great profile Jane

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