‘We are the only Law Faculty on the continent with its own band’

Posted on October 18, 2018

Prof Christof Heyns is a very busy man. When he’s not teaching human rights law at UP, Oxford University, and the American University in Washington, DC, he’s busy with his work as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. Given his impressive CV, many people were surprised to see Prof Heyns take to the stage at September’s Spring Day event, leading his rock band as they entertained staff members and their families. Prof Heyns told Tukkievaria more about the band – and issued a musical challenge to all his colleagues.

Whose idea was it to have a faculty band, and when did you first come together? 

Ten years ago, while I was Dean, we started the ‘Faculty Festival’, to establish a stronger sense of community in the Law Faculty. In essence it’s a house concert – everyone gets the chance to do an item, whether it’s music or dance or poetry or cooking or exhibiting photographs. I thought this was a great opportunity to get musicians together, so our first appearance was at that festival. We called the band ‘The Outlaws’, to make the link with the faculty clear, but we also wanted to include the renegade element that is part of rock n’ roll.

How does this fit in with your ‘usual work’?

I arrange my United Nations commitments around the Faculty Festival whenever possible, to make sure I am here for the festival.

What has the response from the Law Faculty been like?

I’ve been at the faculty for almost 40 years now, in all possible capacities, but I will never forget the impact the first night we played in the quad had on me. There was a group of mostly African women students who stood directly in front of our band as we started. At the end, when they applauded, I somehow for the first time felt at home in the faculty.

How did you and your ‘Outlaws’ meet, and what are their backgrounds?

The two regular members of the band are myself and a classmate, Thomas van Tonder, LLB 1981. We both play guitar and sing, and were in the Law House group in the Serenade competition as students. Every year we get students, other staff members, and alumni to play in the Outlaws. This year we held auditions and got together some seriously talented students and recent alumni. Last year we also had a janitor who played piano, though he was from Engineering. I very much hope we can do that again, with a janitor in our faculty, because this would reinforce the message that it does not matter what your position is, you belong here, you have a role, we can play together, and people will listen to you.

What are the band’s upcoming plans? 

We hope to continue playing in the Faculty Festival, and this year we played at the Spring Day event for the first time. We hope we’ll be asked to play both again next year. We may have some new members by then, but the band goes on. 

You mentioned you have a challenge to lay down…

I want to challenge all the other faculties to have their own bands at next year’s Spring Day. There are members of the executive – whom I will not name – who also play music. How about a band from the ‘Ship’?

When did your love for music start?  

I started playing guitar in primary school, ever since Standard 5 [Grade 7], mostly with my friend Riël Franzsen, who’s now a professor in Economic and Management Sciences. We still play together.

Do you play any off-campus gigs, and what’s been your best gig so far?

Our ambitions are limited to playing at the Faculty Festival and Spring Day. By far the best performance we’ve given was at the Law Faculty festival this year. Somehow, everything came together. Even when the battery on my sound pedal went flat in the middle of the show, someone had a cable. In previous years, there were often problems with the sound; we were not well-prepared. One year, someone started off in the wrong key.


The British are stereotyped as being ‘prim and proper’; have you dared to play at Oxford University?

I made the mistake of taking the guitar that was passed on at a garden party the year I started teaching there. Of course, you can then not get out of it again in subsequent years, especially when the wine is flowing, and that year's students have spoken to the ones before them. However, I may now have some success in putting that behind me, because for the past two years the Oxford programme clashed with the dates of the UN meetings. So, hopefully, I can make a clean start next year, and pretend I am a semi-respectable professor when I go back. 

Is there a connection between your ‘day job’ and your passion for music? If so, what is it?

I believe there is, and I can answer this by way of an actual event that highlights some of the power music possesses. In 2016, I investigated the violence in San Pedro Sula in Honduras. At the time, it was ranked the most deadly city on Earth. Much to my surprise, when I met the mayor, she could not stop talking about the wonderful outdoor symphony concert they had hosted the night before. It was attended by 20 000 people. “No shots were fired, and and no one was killed,” she said. Then I realised where she was coming from – such a concert represented to her the very opposite of their daily reality. It was a powerful symbol of normality, a collective embrace of the sweetness of life. That is the power of music.

- Author Myan Subrayan

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