Law & Human Rights in South Africa by Maria Milner
I did a three month placement at the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in Rondebosch, Cape Town in the autumn of 2009. I only organised the trip a few weeks before my departure date, but Projects Abroad made sure I had all I needed before I left.
In contrast to many other Projects Abroad placements, the Human Rights project in Cape Town has its own dedicated office, staffed entirely by Projects Abroad staff and volunteers. In the period that I was there at any one time there were approximately 15 volunteers with 3 full time staff to support us. The office had two distinct areas of operation – providing human rights advice to individuals and community outreach projects. As a volunteer you had the opportunity to be involved in both areas, create your own project and undertake academic research and writing. I was able to get involved in work in all areas. Of the individuals I provided advice to, the most memorable is Yvette.
Yvette arrived at the Human Rights Office with her two young children having been served with an eviction notice with an impending court date. Yvette had been a rape victim in her home country and had come to South Africa as a refugee, where she married and started a family. While she was pregnant with her third child her neighbourhood came under attack in the xenophobic riots, her husband has since been missing, she believes he is dead. Their home and business were destroyed. She was able to find accommodation sub-letting rooms in a block in Muizenburg. However, the block was run down, without proper facilities of refuse removal, water and electricity and had become a refuge for drug users and dealers.
The landlords of the property were under pressure from the city council to clean up the building. As a result, they were evicting the tenants and sub-tenants of the property. The landlord had grounds to evict and Yvette had no contract to protect her in any way. Our priority was to find her and her children alternative accommodation, with no income this had to take the form of a shelter, which are notoriously overcrowded in South Africa. After days of working the phones and a couple of false hopes we were able to get Yvette accommodation at a shelter for women and children that produced its own vegetables, had work placements and child care and assisted her in her appeal for relocation through the UN programme. It was incredibly satisfying to be able to give her and her family renewed hope for the future after all they had been through.
Providing advice to individuals was unpredictable and for me included meetings with the city ombudsman, assisting with employment searches, housing issues, meetings with employers and researching and drafting advice on specific legal issues. This kept my placement interesting but I also had some regular work. Throughout my time in Cape Town I attended three schools in the Lavender Hill area to provide weekly human rights education classes and compiled a comparative law study of the regulation of farm workers in the international market. My work hit a nice balance between office based and being out in the community, two of my favourite days at work involved taking the children from the Youngs Field refugee camp out to the beach for the day.
Living and working in Cape Town was an education in itself, travelling by a very different network of public transport and living in areas where I was the minority certainly allowed for a full immersion into a different culture. Living with a host family also helped to make the most of this. Having been used to living alone in a two bed house it was a bit of a shock on arrival to be presented with the room I would share with three other volunteers, taking up one of the three bedrooms in the house that we shared with our host family of four. The volume level and the sociability of South African life were not something I was used to at all, but I was amazed how quickly it became normal.
I spent many an enjoyable evening playing a shark in the pool or constructing traps in the garden with the kids, in fact I hardly needed my gym membership, but it was helpful in burning off some of the amazing braai’s that our host dad cooked up. Our host mum was great at taking us out and showing us the area, with trips to popular restaurants, a comedy festival, kite festival and a long weekend doing the garden route. She was certainly game, even completing the adventure route in the Cango Caves with us. As volunteers we tried to bring a bit of our culture to the house by preparing a few family meals; although how two Canadians, an American and a Brit ended up doing a Mexican night and a pizza night I am not too sure.
With my spare time it was fantastic to be able to explore Cape Town and the surrounding area. Projects Abroad organised a few trips for volunteers, including a sunset hike up Lion’s Head and a day out to Cape Point. There were also always other volunteers available for company on trips we organised ourselves. In my three months I managed to squeeze in a township tour that included staying at the institution that is Vicky’s B&B in Khayelitsha and lunch at Mzolis, climbing Table Mountain, spending a weekend in the spa and wine tasting at a vineyard in Stellenbosch, a safari trip, surf lessons, a weekend in Hermanus to go whale watching and shark cage diving, a sunset horse ride along the beach, Robben Island and afternoon tea at the majestic Mount Nelson Hotel. There were also plenty of nights out that took in varied sights; including the infamous Long Street, the beautiful Camps Bay and a Rastafarian dance hall in the township of Philippi.
Three months can pass by amazingly quickly and I am very grateful that I jumped in feet first and made the most of every moment I was there. My advice to anyone would be to do the same, research the area before you go and establish the routines of your new life as quickly as you can. Nailing down the small things in your first week (such as laundry, gym membership, shopping facilities and getting to grips with transport) will enable you to enjoy the rest of your time.
I had a great experience; meeting inspiring people I would never normally have the opportunity to meet and experiencing real life in a different country rather than just being a tourist. For me the whole experience was energising and I returned home with renewed commitment to my master’s course and pursuing a career change.