Dullah Mohamed Omar was born in Observatory, Cape Town on 26 May 1934 and grew up in District Six. He attended the Kipling Street Muslim primary school in Salt River and matriculated at Trafalgar High School in District Six, where his political awareness was formed under the influence of his English teacher, Ben Kies. After matriculation he enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a BA LLB degree. As a student he joined the Unity Movement and became involved in student protest activity on campus. In 1955 he obtained his BA degree and went to complete his LLB in 1957.
In 1960, Dullah Omar set up his own law practice. He entered into an ‘illegal’ partnership with Cadoc Kobus, a black lawyer who did not have permission to work in the city. As a consequence, they set a practice in Langa Township. As per government requirement, Omar needed a permit to visit the office. Later he also opened an office in Caledon Street in the city. Again in this instance Omar had to apply annually for a Group Areas permit which allowed him to have an office in the city until the Act was applied even more strictly. This forced him to move his practice to Woodstock.
Omar was one of the few attorneys who were prepared to take on the political trials which were becoming increasingly prominent in the 1960s. For instance in the early 1960s he defended accused members of Poqo, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress’ (PAC) and eventually became the Pan Africanist Congress’ (PAC) official attorney. During this period he also forged close links with members of the Congress movement, making repeated trips to Robben Island to meet and act for the leadership who were incarcerated there. In the 1970s Omar was once again thrust into political limelight when he acted for the Black Peoples' Convention (BPC) and the South African Students' Organisation (SASO). His willingness to serve people of various political formations was testament to his commitment to upholding human rights without discrimination even in the face of apartheid.
In September 1981 his passport was withdrawn by the apartheid government three days before he was to leave for London to begin studying for a Master of Law degree.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. In 1982.Omar was admitted as an advocate to the Supreme Court.
Omar remained a member of the Unity Movement throughout the 1970s and early 80s until he joined the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. As result of his political activities, Omar was placed under constant surveillance by the apartheid government’s spy network. Consequently he was detained repeatedly in 1985. In addition, he was served with a banning order that restricted him to the Wynberg magisterial district and forbade him from taking part in UDF activities or attending political gatherings.
In July 1987 he was elected chairman of the UDF in the Western Cape. 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 forced him to step down as regional chairman of the UDF and he took on the less demanding post of vice president. Also in 1989 Omar 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".
Omar was elected to the Western Cape regional executive of the African National Congress in 1990. In 1991 he became a member of the movement's constitutional committee, and also a member of the ANC negotiating team at the D.F. Malan talks in February 1991. Later in the year in July 1991 he became a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee. That same year, he was appointed as one of two regional commissioners in the Western Cape for the Human Rights Commission.
After the first democratic elections in 1994, Omar became the first Minister of Justice of the democratic South Africa. 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". He also oversaw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which he viewed as one of his greatest achievements. In July of the same year he became the first Cabinet Minister to be appointed as acting President of South Africa in the absence of the president and deputy presidents.
After serving his full five year term which ended in June 1999 as the Minister of Justice in the Cabinet of President Nelson Mandela until, he was appointed to the position of Minister of Transport by President Thabo Mbeki. 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.
Dullah Omar died on 13 March 2004. He is survived by his wife, Farieda (neé Ally), his three children, Kemal, Rustum and Fazlin, and his two grandchildren, Rameez and Waseemm. The funeral was a combination of a Muslim burial and a state funeral attended by President Thabo Mbeki and Vice-president Jacob Zuma.