Pillay is the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. In 1967, Pillay became the first non-white woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province. She says she had no other alternative: “No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person”. As a non-white lawyer under the Apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter a judge’s chambers.
During her 28 years as a lawyer in South Africa, she defended anti-Apartheid activists and helped expose the use of torture and poor conditions of political detainees.When her husband was detained under the Apartheid laws, she successfully sued to prevent the police from using unlawful methods of interrogation against him. In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.
She co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1992, she co-founded the international women’s rights group Equality Now. In 1995, the year after the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa. She noted that “the first time I entered a judge’s chambers was when I entered my own.”