Dorcas Wong - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
As a law student it is often easy to feel unmotivated, buried under the many textbooks and required readings, or feel overwhelmed amongst the sea of faces at law school. If you are seeking some inspiration, career direction or practical legal experience, this is exactly the project for you.
Early 2014, I spent a month in Cape Town, interning at the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO). During this time, I participated in both the Social Justice and Legal Departments. These departments gave me valuable insight into the South African legal system and also the current human rights situation. Despite the relatively short amount of time I spent there, I took a lot away from the experience on both a professional and personal level, finding the entire experience to be an extremely memorable and rewarding one.
I was surprised to learn that South Africa is in fact a country that receives one the most number of asylum seekers per year. Due to the high demand of people seeking refugee status in South Africa, the overwhelming number of cases at PAHRO were therefore in relation to Refugee law.
However, aside from Refugee Law, I was also fortunate enough to work with a variety of different cases in areas such as Family Law, Property Law, Criminal Law and Employment Law, giving me a broad insight into the different sectors. As an intern, we were given the opportunity to work directly on the cases, performing tasks such as drafting affidavits, correspondences, legal opinions and heads of arguments on behalf of the lawyers. Additionally, we were also often the client’s first point of contact, and participated in meetings. Due to this close client-intern relationship, we needed to exercise a high degree of empathy and professionalism and as each case was unique with its own challenges and emotional hardship a personalized approach to each case was required.
To give you a better idea of the types of cases that the Human Rights Office dealt with, a few of the cases I was directly involved with included: a disabled man seeking a fair divorce from his wife where she was trying to claim more than her share of money, a woman who paid a deposit for a community housing but was refused a house or her deposit back, and two men from Congo in the process of appealing their refugee status and enquiring about their rights to work as asylum seekers.
This department offered me an insight into how exactly a legal clinic operates and also increased my understanding of how general legal process work. As a law student, I was able to put my knowledge gained through law school into practice and believe that any other law student would benefit greatly from this experience.
Alongside the case work, Projects Abroad also ran numerous workshops at juvenile prisons, women’s shelters and primary schools. These workshops ran throughout the week and volunteers were given the opportunity to sign up to the ones they wished to participate in. The job entailed preparing and presenting a workshop on a topic that was generally human rights related. As the demographic of people varied dramatically depending on location we visited, the workshops were tailored to suit the particular audience. For the school kids the focus was on self-respect and respect for others. At the women’s shelters the emphasis was on empowerment of women and assertion of their rights in society. And finally for the juvenile prisons the pivotal topic was peer-pressure and goal-setting. Even though each experience differed, the focus of ‘empowerment’ remained the same. At times I felt disheartened and disbelieving of how a short visit of an hour per week could make any substantial difference. But I soon learnt that making an impact depended on the quality rather than the quantity of the interactions.
These workshops were great as not only did it offer a break from the office, but it also provided an invaluable opportunity to experience ‘the real South Africa’ and to hear the voices of the South African people themselves. Towards the end of my stay, I found that we were not merely empowering them, but were also being empowered through their responses and the stories they shared with us. It became clear that there was a sense of mutual learning and respect that flowed from each other.
With such hectic days at work, it is hard to imagine that there would be time for anything else. But being in such an exciting country like South Africa, amongst a dynamic group of volunteers, us volunteers were always out and about! From simple after work drinks to much larger weekends trips including a safari, bungee jumping and climbing through caves there was truly never a dull moment. South Africa is also extremely rich in culture and history and during my stay I made sure I experienced as much as I could by visiting the Apartheid Museum, Robben Island and also by going to a a traditional South African Braai (BBQ)!
If this type of project appeals to you, my advice is to set aside any fears you may have and just go for it! Initially I was also quite hesitant on going as I was worried about the safety of travelling alone to South Africa. However, I am extremely thankful I took the risk to go, as the month in South Africa ended up being one of the best in my life. The Projects Abroad staff were also great in attending to any problems I had prior to and during my trip.
As I have described above, there is no typical day in the office, therefore I encourage any prospective interns to have an open-mind, use initiative with tasks given and just generally be proactive in making the most out of the whole experience.
Overall, it was a truly humbling experience and one I would recommend to anyone that has a passion for law or human rights.