My South African Diary: Reflections from the Bertha Justice Initiative Global Convening

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March 1-7, 2014

Cape Town, South Africa

The law has long been a crucial element in the struggle for social justice. Movement lawyers have shown how the law can be used as a tool for change; this was the source of the global convening organized by the Bertha Foundation in South Africa. I had the opportunity to join the event as a Bertha Legal Fellow working with EarthRights International (ERI). I was so excited: this was my first time to undertake intercontinental travel alone.

Katie Redford, the co-founder and Director of EarthRights International (ERI) came on the trip, as well as the three Bertha fellows working with ERI in three different countries: Camila Mariño Venegas from Peru, Michelle Harrison from USA and me, Thornthan Kanmangmee from Thailand.

On the last day, the new ERI Bertha fellows and Katie had the opportunity to have dinner together. After this experience together, I feel that we have become a family. What connects us is that we all look for the challenge to be a good lawyer for our people.

The first day: March 2

On the first day we visited the District Six Museum in Cape Town. District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867. Originally established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants, District Six was a vibrant center with close links to the city and the port. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, a process of removals and marginalization had begun. The first to be forced out of the area were black South Africans, who displaced from the District in 1901. As the more prosperous moved away to the suburbs, the area became increasingly neglected. On February 11, 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. By 1982, more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas known as the Cape Flats, and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers. The District Six Museum, established in December 1994, works with the memories of the District Six experience and experiences of forced removals more generally. Our guide was a Muslim man bearing ancestral heritage from India. He brought us to visit his old home, now the site of the car park.  Our guide explained that, black South Africans and other people of colour were restricted from entering the white area; upon entry they could face immediate arrest by police.

The second day: March 3

The speakers program of the convening commenced with a talk by Katie Redford from EarthRights International titled “On a Career in Public Interest Practice”. This session strengthened my own inspiration and determination to continue my path as a public interest lawyer. The stories shared by senior advocates are extremely useful for the young lawyer: we learn strategies and skills that we can apply in our own cases and campaigns. I’ve already learnt from my work as a community lawyer in Thailand that it’s not always easy to fight injustice, but I continue to do it because I “trust in the truth” like Katie said. Still, we need to be clear-eyed about the challenges for young lawyers who want to work together towards a just world. Katie described the ongoing human rights and environmental abuses in Myanmar and other places: situation that seem much graver than in Thailand, yet others continue year after year to work to help the people. Hearing these stories strengthened my own resolve: if they do not lose hope, why would I stop my work for my own people?

The third day: March 4

 

In the morning we had the valuable opportunity to visit Robben Island, the site of South Africa’s major jail.  Before coming I had heard the name, but had never realized the place was Nelson Mandala’s home and prison for 27 years. I’ve forgotten the name of the guide, but I remember him vividly as he was Mandela’s friend. He also, was arrested and imprisoned for seven years, charged with entry into a white area. Most people imprisoned there are serious criminals, including many political prisoners. It was moving to explore the premises, including Mandela’s room, the area for mining through forced prison labour, the prison grave and other sites.

The fourth day: March 5

I visited Equal Education (EE), an NGO working on education issues. Thousands of schools in South Africa lack the infrastructure necessary to provide learners with the quality education to which they are legally entitled. EE supports education for the black population, in particular developing the library system for local schools and community. Dmitri Holtzmann, a staff member of EE, explained that 7% of the thousands of schools in South Africa have no library and another 25% have a library, but the schools themselves don’t understand the function of a library so the staff have sold all of the books. We discussed the experience of Chris Mburu from Kenya, who described the education situation there: when he was a child he really wanted to study, but his parents had no money to support his school fees. He studied hard towards a scholarship to study at university. After graduating from high school he obtained a scholarship to study law in the United States. When he graduated from university, he started to raise money for poor children in Kenya denied educational opportunities. Now he has established his own organization to support children from impoverished families, and every year his organizations provides scholarships for four or five students, giving them the means to pursue their own dreams.

The fifth day: March 6

Bertha Fellows during a workshop

In the morning our participants attended a short workshop on leadership and sustainability in public interest legal practice with Purvi Shah and Jennifer Robinson. Drawing from the experience of senior lawyers in leadership techniques is an important source of inspiration and insight for young lawyers. My group, Bertha fellows who attended the Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE) conference in India in December 2013, shared a reflection on  Irom Sharmilar, a political and women’s rights activist from Manipur in Northeast India, who is undertaking an ongoing hunger strike under house arrest, a case which I blogged about earlier this year.

We had lunch at an ethical vineyard and winery with an interesting background story. The owner on realizing the conditions of those around him decided to work to improve the quality of life of people in his area. He provided jobs for members of the local community, donated money to  the local school to build a swimming pool. He supported good labour conditions and rights for the workers. I don’t know how the others felt, but my own feelings were mixed on hearing his story. In my opinion, if he felt remorse at the living conditions of his fellow South Africans, it would be better to return the land to the indigenous people of the area or to the local community to develop and use for their own benefit. While there are worthy efforts towards justice in South Africa, many do not go far enough. For many indigenous people, the reality is that until they own their own land and have the ability to control their own futures, not merely as employees on another person’s land but as a community and as a people, they remain slaves. The struggle is similar for the Karen and other indigenous peoples in Thailand, and indigenous peoples around the world.

The sixth day: March 7

The final day of the convening commenced with a workshop on international criminal justice and human rights accountability for multinational corporations, by senior lawyers and activists including Katie Redford (ERI), Wolfgang Kaleck (ECCHR) and Harry Roque (Centerlaw). Given that many of the issues we face as young public interest lawyers revolve around pursuing accountability for the human rights impacts of corporate actors, hearing about a range of strategies and comparing issues from around the world was an important opportunity.

It struck me that junior human rights lawyers long to learn from the experience of senior lawyers, while senior lawyers want to see more human rights lawyers in the world, and therefore are committed to developing the capacity of junior lawyers who can help continue the important work that they do. But conversely, if we think we need more and more human rights lawyers that means our work is not successful. Human rights lawyers should always be trying to work themselves out of a job. Sadly, it may be a long way off, but my hope is for a world that is free of human rights violations, and therefore also free of human rights lawyers!

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