Victoria Hill - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
It had always been my dream to visit South Africa as it is where my parents first met and worked for seven years, so when the opportunity arose for me to go abroad to do an internship, South Africa was my first choice. Little did I know that I would completely fall in love with the country as much as I did in four weeks.
After a lengthy flight from London Heathrow to Cape Town I was eager to see the country I was spending the next month in. I was met by a really nice member of staff from Projects Abroad who took me to my host family. During the short car journey I learnt more about Cape Town than you could ever read on any website or guide book. The gentleman was so friendly and welcoming and I already felt safe and settled.
My host family
When I arrived at my new home I was welcomed by Eleanor (my host mum) who showed me my room which I shared with another volunteer. I was extremely fortunate in that our house mum lived in a separate house at the bottom of the garden so other volunteers and I lived in the main house.
There were three bedrooms with two beds in each, which meant throughout my stay there were up to 6 of us sharing at one time. Volunteers from all over the world are attracted to Projects Abroad which made my stay much more interesting and I learnt so much, not only about Cape Town but also the rest of the world.
My host mum had her 14 year old granddaughter living with her and after only a short time we all became a new family.
My Law & Human Rights placement
When I first arrived at the office I was astounded by the amount of volunteers working there. My first thought was that there wouldn’t be enough work for us all and that my trip could have been wasted. I could not have been more wrong.
From the first day until the last I spent every single moment seeking to improve the lives of others who are certainly not as fortunate as those in the UK. The country is still very sore from its historic difficulties and there are many who still struggle on a daily basis as a consequence of the xenophobic attacks, especially those which took place in 2008.
In order to ascertain the problems that the country has in relation to human rights I attempted to cover as much as I could by taking on various types of case work. The Human Rights Office takes on cases in various ways, members of the public can turn up at the office without an appointment at any time during working hours and various cases are transferred from the Human Rights Commission.
In an attempt to make their services more accessible the office sends out a couple of volunteers a week to a women’s shelter in Lavender Hill. I became one of the lucky few who have the pleasure of doing this. In what is effectively a small shed on the side of a house we conducted meetings with men and women from the area who had various issues from wanting to issue divorce and care proceedings to employment issues, unlawful evictions from landlords and threats/attacks from others in their communities.
My first visit taught me an awful lot about how to deal with clients. In Cape Town especially, people can be very desperate and very emotional. In many circumstances we were their very last hope for some improvement in their lives.
The Human Rights Office also offers interns the chance to join one of the many Social Justice projects that they run, many of which were started by previous interns. I chose to attend the Bonnytoun project which is a prison for young offenders. We worked with boys who were pre-conviction so therefore awaiting trial. This experience almost completely turned every pre-conception I had of these men upside down. A large majority of the boys were hit men and members and leaders of very large, dangerous gangs throughout South Africa wearing tattoos which represent their position in that gang and their what they would call ‘achievements’.
Initially I believed that as a human they chose this life and enjoyed it. However I quickly learned that most of them certainly don’t. Many grew up in and amongst gangs and had no choice as to whether to join one or not and were forced to protect themselves in the only way they could.
I certainly learnt a lot about the pressures that they were faced with and the fate that awaits them when they either leave prison and return to their gangs or get transferred to an adult facility, which is more than likely Pollsmore Prison, one of the most dangerous maximum security prisons in the world.
Experiencing the country and culture
During my stay I had a chance to visit Parliament, something I would certainly recommend to anyone doing the project. You are able to sit in committee meetings right at the heart of decision making. It is particularly informal compared to that of the parliamentary system in the UK and you can chat to the politicians about the issues being discussed – if you’re lucky you might even get lunch!
One thing that really stood out to me was how historic the views and systems were compared to the UK. Many of the issues discussed were concerning education and the priorities laid down were certainly those that politicians in the UK would have been discussing some 20 years ago.
Besides my fascinating experiences of the project I also discovered the incredible social scene that Cape Town has to offer. South Africans definitely know how to make the best food and there are some astounding food markets to go to in the evenings and at the weekend.
There are various tourist activities that you can do throughout South Africa but I would say that the one I most enjoyed was driving a few hours from Cape Town to do the Bloukran’s Bungy Jump. It is the highest bridge bungy in the world and it was the most phenomenal experience.
South Africa still has a long way to go in improving the lives of its citizens. Despite its difficulties it is full of extremely inspirational people who are hungry for change and passionate about the future. Projects Abroad volunteers help to give a voice to those people as well as help those in desperate need of advice to move their lives in the right direction.
People’s rights are constantly being violated and it is our job to ensure that this is something that is not tolerated and not part of the future. As a volunteer you may, at times, be shocked, scared, frustrated and even emotional but I can guarantee that by the end of your experience you will not want to leave and will reflect on your journey as one which will stay with you forever. Cape Town will always have a place in my heart.