Dullah Omar, christened Abdullah Mohamed, was born in Cape Town on May 26, 1934.

He attended Trafalgar High School where his political awareness was formed under the influence of his English master, Ben Kies, who went on to become an advocate of note.

Omar also took up law, and in 1957 completed a BA LLB through the University of Cape Town.

At the time that the common voters’ roll was being carved into groups by the National Party government, Omar was a student member of the Unity Movement fighting the first apartheid elections on 1958 on a non-participation platform. He remained a member of the Unity Movement until his “defection” to the United Democratic Front in 1983.

He set up his own law practice in 1960 because it was difficult for a black attorney to find a position with a law firm then.

For his office in Caledon Street, Omar had to apply annually for a Group Areas permit until the Act was applied even more strictly and he was forced to move his practice to Woodstock.

He became the PAC’s official attorney, and also forged close links with members of the Congress movement, making repeated trips to Robben Island to meet and act for the leadership incarcerated there.

Prepared to take on political trials

He was one of the few attorneys who was prepared to take on the political trials which were becoming increasingly common.

In the early 1960s he defended accused in the Poqo trials, and in the 1970s acted for the Black Peoples’ Convention and the SA Students’ Organisation.

His passport was withdrawn in September 1981, three days before he was to leave for London to begin study for a Master of Law degree.

An unrestricted passport was only restored to him in August 1990, when he was invited to address the convention of the American Bar Association in Chicago.

Omar became an advocate in 1982.

He began to work with the United Democratic Front after its formation in 1983, and was detained repeatedly in 1985, then served with a banning order that restricted him to the Wynberg magisterial district and forbade him from taking part in UDF activities or attending gatherings where the Government was criticised.

In July 1987 he was elected chairman of the UDF in the Western Cape, and warned against trying to work with the system to bring about a democratic society.

Trying to cross the river

“To think you can use the Tricameral system in this fashion is like trying to cross the river on the back of a crocodile,” he said.

In the same year he was elected vice president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, an organisation he helped form.

In 1989 ill health – he had suffered several heart attacks since 1979 – forced him to step down as regional chairman of the UDF and he took on the less demanding post of vice president.

In that year he also became a widely-quoted spokesman for jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela in the months leading up to his release.

In 1990 he was appointed director of the University of the Western Cape’s newly-established Community Law Centre, which aimed to research human rights, do some human rights litigation and run community education programmes.

In the same year the Harms Commission heard evidence of a Civil Co-operation Bureau plot to assassinate him, firstly by planning to shoot him and then by substituting his heart pills with poison tablets. Omar subsequently met the agent who was to have killed him, and told him he had “no hard feelings”.

Elected to national executive

Omar was elected to the Western Cape regional executive of the African National Congress in 1990, and in July 1991 to the ANC’s national executive as well.

He was a member of the movement’s constitutional committee, and was a member of the ANC negotiating team at the DF Malan talks in February 1991.

In 1991 he was appointed one of two regional commissioners in the Western Cape for the Human Rights Commission.

In 1994, Omar became the first Minister of Justice of the new democratic South Africa. He served the full five year term in that capacity in the Cabinet of President Nelson Mandela until June 1999, when he was appointed to the position of Minister of Transport by President Thabo Mbeki.

In July 1994 he became the first Cabinet Minister to be appointed as acting President of South Africa in the absence of the president and deputy presidents.

As Justice Minister he embarked upon a programme of institutional reform and piloted legislation to set up statutory bodies such as the Constitutional Court, Human Rights Commission and Office of the Public Protector.

Omar was also instrumental in setting up the new prosecution system headed by the National Director of Public Prosecutions, and developed the framework for the transformation of the administration of justice in a document entitled “Justice Vision 2000″.

As Transport Minister he focussed on completing institutional transformation, safety issues in respect of road, rail, sea and air, transformation of the mini-bus taxi industry, law enforcement and infrastructure development.

He married Farida (born Ally) with whom he had three children.

line“Omar was a student member of the Unity Movement fighting the first apartheid elections on 1958 on a non-participation platform.”