Sunday, July 13, 2008

South African Human Rights Commission

Christina Calce shares her experiences in South Africa:

Not that long ago, my supervisor asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I replied, only half jokingly, "save the world." I realize that that is a rather ambitious plan, but I feel like I am at least doing a bit to help the people of South Africa in my position at the South
African Human Rights Commission

I am here with two other Georgetown students, Danielle Petrilli and
Nyasha Griffith, and the Commission has divided us between three of
its departments: Appeals, Gauteng Province ("GP"), and Legal Services.
I started in appeals, rotated to the GP floor about a week ago, and
will head to Legal Services next week.

As an appeals intern, I dealt primarily with research and analysis related to government legislation on hate speech. One of the most interesting things about S.A. is that its constitution is only 14 years old: it was established after the fall of apartheid in 1994. Most legislative acts enforcing constitutional provisions are even younger than that. Consequently, there is limited jurisprudence on most topics and a wide range of debate on issues such as, "Where does the right to free expression stop and the right to protect human dignity through measures prohibiting hate speech begin?" My particular research was related to situation wherein the Commission found that a prominent union leader did not commit hate speech when he made certain anti-farmer statements following allegations that white farmers had attacked a black farm worker. The farmers' trade union filed an appeal disagreeing with the Commission's finding, and my supervisor asked me to research all possible interpretations of the hate speech legislative provisions. In my memo, I argued that the Commission had been correct in its initial finding, and that in this case, freedom of expression and free political discourse were the most important rights
at stake.

Now I am in the GP division where I deal primarily with complaint intake, but also have the opportunity to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Yesterday, we drove to a shantytown about an hour outside the city. The place was wreaked with poverty: most buildings were little more than shacks of scrap metal and corrugated steel, children played with toys made from wire scraps, and the "road" was a dirt path interrupted at points by mini-rivers of water, waste and motor oil. The government is threatening to bulldoze most of the town in order to lay water and sewage pipes which would run to another nearby community. While clean water and proper sewage are certainly desirable, the government had not considered what would happen to the people whose homes were destroyed in the process. Adding to the issue
were three individuals who had obtained permits from the municipality to construct "proper homes." They built and paid for these homes themselves, using concrete and cinderblocks to create permanent dwellings. The government threatened to bulldoze these homes as well, even though the people had devoted their limited resources to
purchasing the cement and cinderblock supplies. The demolition has ceased for now, and we are working to have either the municipality reroute the pipes or to have the department of housing provide alternate homes.

Next week I head to the legal services department, which may more aptly be referred to as "litigation." Cases that we can't resolve through mediation at the provincial level are sent to the Equality Court, and I will be assisting Commission advocates in preparing their cases.

Needless to say, I couldn't be in South Africa without the Equal Justice Foundation's help. Thanks to the Equal Justice Foundation, I have gained a great deal of legal experience, and I have also given back to the South African people. I might not be saving the world, but if we can at least save the shantytown shacks from being demolished, then my work here will have been worthwhile.

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