My Cape Town human rights internship

Before starting my law degree at the University of Cambridge, I was fortunate enough to have the invaluable experience of working as a legal intern at a pro-bono firm in Cape Town, South Africa.

This was made possible through personal fundraising initiatives as well as through the generous Travel Scholarship my school awarded me for what they considered to be a “worthwhile humanitarian cause” that would also allow me to actively pursue my expressed interest in international law and human rights.

What initially drew me to apply for the program?

What struck me most was the broad spectrum of activities I could get involved in and responsibilities I could take on, in spite of my lack of professional qualifications and/or previous experience in the field.

I am a law student with particular interest in international relations and foreign policy. For many years I have been eager to learn more about the mechanics of governmental institutions and the creation of policy and legislation. Naturally therefore, it was an exciting prospect for me, for example, to have visitation rights to attend various committee meetings at the South African Parliament. Notably, I had the opportunity to attend one concerning the drafting of policy framework surrounding correctional services on torture in South African prisons. Following several articles I had read on the issue, it was a relief to see Parliament taking the issue seriously and being committed to maintaining universally accepted standards with regard to the treatment of offenders.

Another motivation behind my application was the privilege I would have to work on real cases under the supervision of internationally renowned, high-profile human rights lawyer and legal academic, Theo Kamwimbi. He was an inspirational supervisor, with many moving and powerful stories to share.

I am an avid defender and advocate of human rights, and have a particular preoccupation with the rights of children; crucially, the fundamental right for a child to have access to education. I support wholeheartedly Nelson Mandela’s quotation: “an educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy…[and] without democracy there cannot be peace”. In light of this, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of contributing to several social justice projects the office had set up.

A Typical Day in the Legal Services Department

It varied between undertaking research, conducting interviews or providing legal advice for refugees or victims of human rights abuses; and opening, reviewing, and closing cases from walk-in clients. I took over clients’ files some of which had barely been worked on and some of which were seeing their final moments before being closed. I was lucky to gain exposure at all varying stages of the cases. Due to the confidential and sensitive nature of the legal cases I worked on, regrettably, I do not have permission to share any examples.

A Typical Afternoon in the Social Justices Division

In-office work was combined with out-of-office “excursions” or “missions” to prisons; abused children/women’s homes; HIV/AIDS victims’ shelters; juvenile detention centers (such as Bonnytoun which was for men under 18 who were either sentenced, or awaiting trial for charges relating to criminal activity such as drug dealing, armed robbery and even murder) etc., in order to open cases for clients and inform them of their legal rights who were otherwise unable to travel to the office themselves in order to do so. Interns were also encouraged to assist local communities with grassroots campaigns. I facilitated human rights awareness and debating workshops, and prepared and distributed educational pamphlets about HIV/AIDS/social injustices/constitutional rights.

In Bonnytoun, I worked alongside other interns from the office, and conducted interactive workshops on key issues for the young men: communication; role models; relationships with, and respect for women.

I was initially surprised by how engaged the young men were and by some of their creative and often thought-provoking responses. Many of them discussed their ambition to move away from a life of crime towards a brighter, honest, and more fulfilling future. Unfortunately, many spoke about the continuing existence of gang culture within the townships, and about how they felt trapped; unable to escape from crime due to the stigma attached to perceived disrespect and disloyalty, which would greatly threaten their own and their family’s safety. It was heartbreaking as well as disturbing to hear some of their experiences which included murdering members of rival gangs in retaliation for their own family members having been killed. Only one boy admitted to being scared, but he felt ashamed to say it; feeling as though he branded himself a coward in front of his fellow inmates. On one occasion we asked the boys to make three statements (two true and one false) without telling us which were true/false. I was perturbed by the comments of one boy who had previously said that he had never been afraid and would be willing to die in the name of honouring his gang, when he said: “I like crime, I like drugs, I like soccer.”He went on to confirm which one he lied about: “I don’t like soccer.”I was disappointed not to have had more sessions with these boys as I believe progress (whether great or little) was achieved with each visit.

Another social justice project which I was involved in was visiting Gugulethu (a township situated approximately 15 km outside Cape Town) to attend community forums, during which issues on crime and social justice were raised and discussed by local residents. Members of the local police force and councilors also attended the meetings. Main topics of concern were gangsterism and domestic violence. The forums enabled members of the community to express their troubles and brainstorm together in a safe environment in order to come up with possible solutions. In a township where one murder occurs every two and a half days, I was overwhelmed and touched by how welcoming and hospitable the local residents were, and how open they were to having us “outsiders” participating in and contributing to their discussions.

Leisure time

My main reason for choosing a program in Cape Town was not only the interesting work, but also the chance to live in, and experience the city. My host family was generous, warm and friendly and I remain in touch with them to this day. I saved sightseeing activities for the weekends, as all the interns were told that it was too unsafe to travel home by public transport after 6pm. Although we were warned of the dangers of going out late at night, we had no regrets about experiencing South African nightlife together! However, on such occasions we were sure to go out in groups and share taxis when we needed to go home. On the weekends, the tourist attractions I visited presented a total contrast to the South African life of the clients I had been dealing with in the office. Excursions to Cape Point, The Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain (inter alia), enabled me to appreciate why South Africa is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Reflection

Aside from building on my pre-existing preoccupation with human rights and social justice, my experience at the Pro-Bono Office has also greatly enhanced the skills which will be useful to me in my professional life. As a prospective lawyer, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to gain real hands-on experience and responsibility at an early stage of my legal career with regards to conducting legal research, client consultations, as well as drafting legal opinions.

The internship was intellectually stimulating, emotionally challenging and I’m pleased to say that I built lasting friendships with some of the people I lived with and worked with. I thoroughly enjoyed living in and exploring Cape Town during a time when the country is experiencing social and political transition. I hope to return there one day. 

Advice

As I previously mentioned, a generous scholarship and a lot of personal fundraising made this internship possible for me. However, if you’re interested in having a similar experience closer to home, there are endless possibilities; examples of which include: volunteering for Citizens Advice Bureau, the Innocence Network UK, Reprieve, or Streetlaw UK.