Woman Durbach, Andrea

Human rights activist

Written by Kate Moore, Australian National University

Andrea Durbach was born in 1957 in Cape Town, South Africa. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, within a family that opposed its ideology and extreme forms of injustice, Andrea, "absorbed the idea (from her parents) 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." (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/andrea-durbach/)

Andrea was educated in South Africa and graduated with a BA LLB from the University of Cape Town. After a year at Warwick University she worked for a local law firm where most of her work was on behalf of anti-apartheid activists and trade unions. In 1985 she was appointed instructing solicitor defending 25 black people accused of the murder of a black policeman during a riot in the remote town of Upington. This high profile death penalty case which Andrea wrote about in her book Upington formed the basis of the award winning documentary, A Common Purpose.

After 14 of her clients in the Upington trial were sentenced to death and the barrister in the case (an outspoken Namibian human rights advocate) was assassinated, Andrea came to Sydney. She worked in a big law firm by day and studied at night school to qualify as an Australian lawyer, also working on the appeal against the Upington judgment. In 1991 Andrea took a job at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), and became its Director in 1997. She identified the key elements of her leadership at PIAC as 'having a perspective that saw the possibility of change and pushed boundaries'. (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/andrea-durbach/)

After 13 years with PIAC, Andrea was offered the opportunity to teach law and run the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales. She enjoys the greater freedom of academia where there is less focus on managing people and more room to generate and promulgate ideas. Andrea was also appointed as Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 2011, a part-time, temporary appointment, which she combines with her work at the Human Rights Centre.

In general, Andrea sees women leaders as more consultative and as being better listeners than men. She also believes women are able to articulate messages publicly in ways that may resonate and get heard. However, she emphasises that she likes to work with men, and appreciates what she calls a 'male energy'. Andrea also emphasises the role that humour plays in being an engaging leader. She says that there is a place for lightness, and that good leadership is 'able to gauge when 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'. (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/andrea-durbach/)

Andrea talks about the intersection between leadership and art and believes many writers to be leaders, that they lead through the power of language. She enjoys the creative world, especially good theatre and jazz. (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/andrea-durbach/)

Published Resources


  • Durbach, A, Upington, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Online Resources

See also