Born in Durban, Judge Navi Pillay graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965. She earned a master's law degree in 1982 and a doctorate in juridical science in 1988 from Harvard University. She practised as an attorney from 1967, defending many anti-apartheid activists and trade unionists.
She would become the first woman to open a law practice in Natal, and the first black woman and the first attorney to be appointed as an acting judge of the High Court of South Africa. In 2008 she was named as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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The university has bestowed high academic honours in the form of degrees awarded honoris causa on the following distinguished men and women.