Thursday, July 10, 2008

South African Human Rights Commission

Danielle Petrilli writes from South Africa

This summer I am interning with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Commission was established to investigate the prima facie violations of human rights as contained within the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

In my first week with the Commission I assisted in the inspection of a displaced person camp for the victims of xenophobic attacks in the Gauteng Province. The attacks were largely a result of high unemployment rates in South Africa coupled with increasing numbers of immigrants from nearby, less stable countries, particularly Zimbabwe.

The camp we inspected was set up a few days before our arrival and the residents had been recently moved from various other smaller sites. The day of our visit Johannesburg was rainy and cold, affording our team the opportunity to see the newly set up camp at its worst. The Commission’s task was to investigate not only the quality and availability of things like food, shelter, and water, but also to monitor the set-up of schools, transportation to work, health care, etc. Walking through the camp on such a dreary day with residents swarming for news and the opportunity to tell their story was both frustrating and moving. Interestingly, it was mostly men that approached us or sought news from the camp managers. One of my first lessons in the camp was that due to traditional gender roles, female concerns in such emergency situations easily fall by the way-side. Additionally, adolescents and teenagers are often the last to receive attention for all focus is placed on babies and small children. These were just a few of the lessons I learned in my first day of fieldwork.

I have also had the opportunity to observe several mediations. In one such mediation, I accompanied a legal officer from the Commission to mediate a dispute concerning a piece of land between two Afrikaner ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. Unwilling to question the status of the land’s ownership with the government, the ministers opted to resolve their dispute within their own community. This mediation was my induction to the tension that still exists for some citizens between the old National Party government and the post-apartheid African National Congress government.

Throughout my internship, I have had the opportunity to engage in many valuable comparative law debates. From formal debates over the status of hate speech in South Africa versus the U.S. to informal discussions about the future of the U.S. presidency, I believe my internship with the Commission has afforded me a plethora of new perspectives. This is an experience I certainly would not have been able to gain without the help of EJF funding.

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