Janet McKnight - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
As a student at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, I was looking for the perfect summer opportunity to get hands-on experience with international law. I signed up with Projects Abroad and they placed me in their Human Rights Office, a non-governmental organisation focusing on issues of human rights in South Africa. The first thing I saw as I arrived in Cape Town was the most beautiful sunset casting purple, blue and orange hues of light around Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. My experience in South Africa turned out to be just as colourful and spectacular as that first sundown.
I was one of the first few volunteers in the newly founded office in Rondebosch, Cape Town. Under the supervision of Theo Kamwimbi, myself and other volunteers were able to choose an individual project that most interested us. With the recent xenophobic attacks that occurred in Johannesburg and Cape Town in the month before I arrived, I was drawn towards working with immigration law. I had little knowledge about current South African law and the culture surrounding foreigners but soon discovered the common misconception between ordinary migrants and refugees. I was introduced to various reading materials—everything from newspaper articles and national legislative acts to international human rights treaties.
After becoming familiar with the historical background and legal basis of immigration in South Africa, I took different field trips with other volunteers in the office. We made visits to regional prisons, judicial inspectorate offices and community events. Our office engaged in a collaborative effort with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group to be able to take notes at sessions in South African Parliament. I monitored sessions on education reform, amendments to the South African Refugees Act and a special seminar on migration and xenophobia held on World Refugee Day on June 20, 2008.
The volunteers were invited to a panel discussion on xenophobia organised by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation and hosted at the University of Cape Town, where Theo introduced us to many of his colleagues in the academic community. We conducted research at the law library at the University of the Western Cape and were given the opportunity to interview professors on campus who specialised in issues of human rights. I also visited a township and spoke to people about their personal experiences and their thoughts on the future of South Africa’s attitude toward foreigners and refugees. All of these encounters gave me an appreciation and understanding of the situation of displaced people in the country.
In the last week of my month-long placement, Projects Abroad Human Rights Office went to Youngsfield refugee camp, the only camp in the country set on a military base. At first, South African military personnel and risk management officials were weary about our presence, believing us to be journalists. After we explained our purpose as humanitarian volunteers and students, we were allowed to sit in the tents and observe sessions to inform refugees of their rights. I spoke with people from Rwanda, Somalia and Zimbabwe. They told me about their journey to the country and their treatment by the South African government and local citizens. Back at the office, Theo was kind enough to share stories with us about his life and experience as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
My explorations, interviews and visits to different sites culminated in a research paper comparing South African refugee law in theory with how the laws are implemented in practice. The paper has been submitted to an international academic journal and will hopefully be selected for publication to help raise awareness of the refugee situation in South Africa.
I have travelled internationally previously, with family and friends and as a student, but nothing has compared to the experience of working abroad in Cape Town. In even a short period of time, I learned a great amount about refugee law and the culture and people of South Africa. My time with the Human Rights Office also helped me to better understand the field of law that I want to enter after graduation. I plan to work in Africa or the Middle East in some area of humanitarian law and everything that I experienced in Cape Town has better prepared me for this goal.
I encourage those who are thinking about volunteering abroad to work with Projects Abroad. The programme is incredibly well administered from the very moment you sign up and throughout your stay in the host country. The Human Rights Office will expose you to people and events you will not experience anywhere else. Especially for people who are in law school or thinking about entering law, working at Projects Abroad Human Rights Office will be one of the most rewarding opportunities of your life!