Eileen (Thomson) Sawyer
By Anthony Reeler
Obituary for Eileen Sawyer (1926-2012)
Eileen Sawyer, who died this week at the venerable age of 85, was born in Port Elizabeth on 31st March 1927 as Eileen May Thomson. She was the last surviving child of four daughters and two sons. Eileen studied social work at the University of Rhodes, and worked for many years as a social worker in Cape Town. She came to the (then) Southern Rhodesia in the early 1960s to set up the Council of Social Service and the Citizens Advice Bureau. The open door policy of CAB (and the growing social awareness engendered by the Council for Social Service) created a small outpost of care in a growing climate of racial intolerance. Eileen and a band of dedicated volunteers provided much needed assistance to all that came to CAB’s doors.
Eileen married Sidney Sawyer in 1970, the former junior minister in Roy Welensky’s Federal Government and opponent of UDI. Sidney died in 1981. They had no children.
One pressing need was for legal assistance, and Eileen, with the assistance of the Law Department of the University of Rhodesia (and the pro bono services of many leading law firms) established the Legal Aid Clinic, which continues still to operate. The need for a more national service was clearly felt and this led to the establishment of the Legal Resources Foundation in 1983, an organisation that Eileen led until her retirement from the LRF in 2002. Providing legal advice, training of paralegals, publishing law reports, and a host of other valuable services, the LRF became the largest human rights organisation in the new Zimbabwe. Under her stewardship, the LRF developed an excellent working relationship with the Zimbabwe Government, which lasted until the LRF (with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace) began their investigations of Gukurahundi. Eileen and Mike Auret oversaw the publication of the “Breaking the Silence Report”, and the public exposure of the gross human rights violations that took place in the southern provinces of Zimbabwe during the 1980s. Eileen was instrumental in ensuring that the report was published, mostly against the inclination of the Catholic bishops at the time. The report was described by Amnesty International as exemplary, and opened the door for a whole new generation of human rights organisations.
The report marked a change in Eileen and the beginning of a much more determined defender of human rights. On retiring from the LRF, Eileen did not choose the path of retirement, but agreed to take the job of directing the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum on a caretaker basis. She had been party to discussions about the setting up of such a body prior to its actual formation in the aftermath of the Food Riots in 1998. Eileen never stopped working for the Human Rights Forum, and, after retiring as Director, continued as a consultant to the Forum until her death. Under her guidance the Forum grew from eight founder member organisations to the 19 organisations today, and an institution with an international reputation. She was still appearing outside the Harare Magistrate’s Court in support of human rights (and the malicious prosecution of the Forum’s Director) weeks before her death.
Eileen always described herself as a backroom person: she was not a public speaker (she hated public speaking), but she was tireless behind the scenes. She always had an acute appreciation of the issues and knew better than most how to mobilise the key people around an issue. She would spend hours on the phone talking to those that needed to understand the particular issue or take action on it.
A stickler for correctness in all things, she was an assiduous editor of any report or statement that would emerge under her responsibility. All who worked with her remember her stubbornness for getting things rights: if you are going to do it, do it right was a litany. This attention to detail was one of the strongest reasons for the quality of reports that emerged from the Human Rights Forum: over 40 detailed reports and more than 80 monthly reports on the political violence since July 2001. Eileen’s hand can be found in every one of those reports.
Eileen has been described as the “grandmother” of human rights in Zimbabwe, and she brought a grace and charm to the notion of human rights defender. Always immaculately dressed, she was the epitome of the lady of times past. But, beneath her elegant exterior, she was a strong, moral, and deeply religious person, and she carried those principles into everything she did. Perhaps her greatest gift was her insistence on consultation before action: some felt that she was unwilling to make decisions, but the reality was that Eileen knew better than most that consensus was crucial in developing strong positions, and was a major reason for the solidarity that exists amongst the organisations that make up the Human Rights Forum. She was deeply compassionate person, and all that have worked with Eileen will know how she paid attention to the small details of people’s lives.
Zimbabwe is poorer for her passing, but richer for her life.