Legal Empowerment is a Social Economic Right, Not Just a Service Delivered, Urges Sooka

January 5, 2016

During a Global Policy Academy course on legal empowerment, Yasmin Sooka, George Soros Visiting Chair and executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights, made a presentation about community-based dispute resolution in South Africa with her colleagues Bricks Mkholo and Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo.

Sooka contextualized the emergence of legal empowerment and community advice offices (CAOs) in South African history. Apartheid destroyed the political, social, and economic rights of all peoples regarded as " non-whites," Sooka noted. Apartheid, which included the dispossession and removal of black people from the land dating back to 1913, as well as restricted land ownership that vastly benefitted the minority white population, became a global cause célèbre as the anti-apartheid movement gained traction in the 1960s. After the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 when policemen fired on unarmed South African protesters, global support for the UN resolution on apartheid as a crime against humanity swelled. "How can we regain this feeling of being united for a cause?" asked Sooka.

Sooka highlighted the importance of Black Sash, a white women's resistance organization founded in 1955, in the development of legal empowerment in South Africa. The Black Sash established community paralegal offices in areas devastated by political and economic rights violations and attended every trial for which they provided assistance. "They spoke conclusively to the world from a basis of evidence and knowledge," Sooka said. "When you can speak based on evidence and facts, no government or international organization can dismiss you from this position of strength. They not only knew the law but used it to oppose injustice."

During the years of apartheid, legal empowerment was a broad-based social movement with CAOs relying on support from churches, lawyers, public interest law organizations, and the International Defense and Aid Fund (IDAF) as well as funding from donors like SIDA. "Even though cases were often lost during this period, it created a public record and helped garner world attention around the crimes of apartheid," asserted Sooka.

CAOs today face different challenges than those presented under apartheid. "South Africa made a peaceful transition through which it gained political freedom, but not economic freedom. It remains the most unequal society in the world," highlighted Sooka. Transitioning to this new system, organizations like Black Sash had to redefine themselves and their goals. "The mission today is no longer resisting the state but rather promoting human dignity through socio-economic justice, working alongside the state but opposing unjust policies and laws where necessary," Sooka noted.

Since the passage of a new constitution in 1996, CAOs have been dealing with numerous issues including social justice, evictions, land restitution, and access to information. There are currently 350 CAOs operating in South Africa employing around 1,000 paralegals who provide free services including human rights resources, access to information, legal advice, conflict resolution and mediation within communities, and referrals to lawyers and relevant organizations.

Bricks Mkholo shares his experiences working at the Orange Farm Advice Office in South Africa. Photo: SPP/Daniel Vegel

"Paralegals are activists who can change the world," said Mkholo. "We are empowering the disempowered members of our communities." Mkholo, a member of the Orange Farm Advice Office, spoke about his experience working in Orange Farm, a large informal settlement near Johannesburg. "I was born in Orange Farm and was one of 10 children raised by a single mother," he prefaced. "I know what it's like to live in a disadvantaged community." He highlighted services provided by the Orange Farm Advice Office including rights education and access to justice services, a recycling project that generates income for the community, a nursery school, and a vegetable garden used to feed orphans and those with HIV/AIDS.

"South Africa has a vibrant history of CAO activism, but sustainability and retaining one's integrity in a changing world of economic asymmetry including donor funding remain key issues," Sooka wrapped up.

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