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Lisa Sheldrick - Human Rights in South Africa

Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa

I was extremely relieved when the plane finally touched down on Cape Town soil. The flight from London to Johannesburg and then Johannesburg to Cape Town was my first time flying on my own. As I’m sure you can imagine, I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked through the arrivals gateway and saw a sign saying ‘Projects Aboard – LISA’ – it confirmed I was in the right place!

From the airport I was taken straight to my host family’s house where I was introduced to the family, the other volunteers and of course, the dogs. Then came dinner, but I don’t think the term ‘dinner’ does it any justice…it was more like a feast! My host mother Faye did a wonderful job of introducing herself and giving us some information about the area which I found particularly useful. She talked to us about the crime risks in the area and that we may experience a culture shock. Having these aspects of Cape Town explained to me made me feel very safe and I knew I was going to have the trip of a lifetime.

Law & Human Rights in Cape Town

The project had two elements, one with the purpose to facilitate the other. The first element was a case study for moot court and the second was various trips and activities to enable us to have a better understanding of the human rights and social justice issues in South Africa at present, but also in the past. The research and moot court was at the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO) in Wynberg, Cape Town.

The case study

The volunteers were split into two groups: prosecution and defence. We were given the case notes including the charge sheet, bail sheet, police statement, and various other documents. My group was the prosecution and we had the task to put together a case with convincing arguments in the hope that the ‘jury’ at the moot court would find the person in question guilty.

We were thrown in at the deep-end with this South African case, with some law books and statements in a local language, Afrikaans. However, this steep learning curve was very exciting and tested both my leadership and teamwork skills. After a few hours of reading anything and everything we could find relating to the case, we started to make progress and began formulating arguments.

We had the help of one of the PAHRO’s top lawyers (who was the defending lawyer on this case in court) to translate the statements in Afrikaans and talk through ideas. The case had numerous human rights and social justice violations which we were told was sadly all too frequent an occurrence. Unfortunately, this weakened our argument and gave the defence an advantage.

Other activities at the project

The MOSAIC organisation office in Cape Town

To aid our case research and improve our understanding of human rights and social justice issues in both past and present South Africa, we visited a range of places. To understand the history, we visited the Slave Lodge and explored the history of slavery in South Africa, the impacts of slavery on modern day life, and also a step-by-step look at the history of South Africa with regards to human rights. We saw how the country progressed, from rather dark beginnings to a brighter democratic future, culminating in the moment that changed the country forever, when Mandela was released in 1994 and the creation of a very progressive constitution.

We spent a day at Capricorn township where we ran the soup kitchen in the morning, preparing and serving food to members of the community. This was a very humbling experience, and everyone I spoke to was very grateful for our help and welcomed me into their community, calling me ‘sister’ – a response I could not have dreamed of.

In the afternoon we went to an organisation called Where Rainbows Meet, which was set up by members of the township and remains to this day. This grass-roots project offers many services for the community like free legal advice on various housing issues and also women’s rights relating to domestic violence and rape. They also sell food that they have grown themselves to the community at very good prices.

I felt that the trip with MOSAIC was very emotional but extremely powerful. MOSAIC is an organisation that focuses on preventing and reducing domestic abuse and domestic violence, particularly on women and those living in disadvantaged areas. The trip started with a talk about the reality of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the area and how the organisation is trying to tackle these issues, which was both horrifying but empowering. We were given some statistics, and the one that stuck with me is that every 8 minutes a woman dies as a result of domestic abuse, highlighting the importance of organisations like MOSAIC. Next, we visited different townships and hospitals to see MOSAIC’s work in action and meet some volunteers to hear their experiences.

Visiting the police station, where the defendant in the case was charged and detained, was directly relevant to our earlier case work. We were able to gain a valuable insight into the crime history of the area and also the police procedures. The police admitted themselves that there are negative practices in the police force which go against human rights and social justice but they explained how they have improved over the years and are continuing to do so through better police training.

The moot court

The day came: the dreaded moot. We were all very nervous but also excited to present our case to other volunteers in the PAHRO office who were acting as the jury and the qualified lawyers who acting as a panel of judges. Sadly, due to the facts of the case and the immense human rights and social justice violations surrounding the police procedure, the jury ruled in favour of the defence. However, my team were not disheartened as the lawyer who acted as the real defence informed us that we mentioned everything the real prosecution argued and that we were very convincing – this brightened our moods a lot.

Socialising and travelling in South Africa

Volunteers and staff take a picture with locals

The project was not just about working hard – we played hard too! The evenings were crammed with activities from cinema trips, endless shopping, go-karting (a new talent of mine), countless amazing restaurants, and our host mother’s famous braais (South African BBQ).

For the weekend trip we had to leave our delightful host home and travel 5 hours out of Cape Town for a full activity weekend starting with a breath-taking safari at Garden Route Game Reserve. Our tour guide took us as close to the animals as he could and told us amusing stories which had endless awful (but hilarious) puns. The rest of the weekend consisted of outdoor activities including paintballing, quad biking, and zip-wiring.

A career changing trip

This trip has motivated me to expand my career goals in commercial law and to volunteer locally in London in order to promote social justice and human rights as well as to look into international volunteering.

Read more about Law & Human Rights in South Africa Short-term Special.

Lisa Sheldrick

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