Volunteer Review: Olivia F., Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
I love to travel, and will take every opportunity I can to do so. With the summer approaching, I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to study abroad. I found a program through my university, going to South Africa. It ended up being cancelled due to lack of interest. This, however, ended up leading me to an even better opportunity. With a desire to still go to South Africa, I quickly jumped on the internet and found the Projects Abroad page. As a pre-law student, I felt the Law & Human Rights project would be a great opportunity, and I couldn’t have been more right.
My Host Family
When I arrived, I was immediately greeted at the airport and taken to my host family. My host mom, Eleanor, was extremely friendly and welcoming. She showed me my room and then let me have time to rest and unpack. The house was very nice. I had plenty of space and privacy and everything was clean. Being a vegetarian, I was concerned about what I was going to be fed. The very first dinner quickly put my mind at ease. Eleanor was more than accommodating and every night there was a new and delicious meal, and even the occasional dessert.
Interning at the Human Rights Office in Cape Town
My first morning in Cape Town, I was greeted by another friendly staff member and taken to my induction. Here I had any remaining questions about my program answered and was able to buy anything I still needed or had forgotten. I was also taken to the Human Rights Office. I immediately could tell I would be working hard, as all the other interns were busy doing just that. During this time, I learned what exactly I would be doing. I was going to be able to do hands-on work on numerous cases. It seemed overwhelming at first, but once I got started I felt confident with the assistance I received from the supervisors.
Each day brought new tasks. Most Monday mornings I attended the Vrygrond legal clinic, and on Wednesday mornings I went to the Mitchell’s Plain legal clinic. At the legal clinics I met with existing clients as well as new clients. When I got back to the office, I would open files for the new clients and update the files of the pre-existing clients. Each case required me to do different tasks. I was often making phone calls, writing letters, drafting affidavits, writing emails, talking with the supervisors, doing research, and updating files. I worked on a variety of cases regarding divorce, protection orders, refugee law, property law, and criminal law. I found that the biggest issue facing the citizens of Cape Town was that so many of them simply do not know their rights.
I worked on one case in which the client was being unlawfully evicted and harassed by her landlords. She came to us seeking help, and we explained the many ways that her landlords were in violation of the law. We wrote letters to her landlords outlining these laws as well. Another case I dealt with was one in which a client and his wife had their lives in danger due to the wife’s ex-boyfriend, who was a gang member. They had no idea how to handle the situation. We helped them get and complete the paperwork for a protection order. This case was very difficult simply because of how much fear the client had, and his very limited understanding of how a protection order would help him.
Working at the Social Justice Projects
I also participated in the social justice projects. These were good opportunities to integrate with the legal work as you can see more immediate results. We went to juvenile detention centers (such as Bonnytoun), as well as a women’s shelter, and did different presentations focusing on empowerment and rehabilitation. It easy to see what kind of lives these kids were living, as they are constantly asking about gangs and drugs. At the same time it is amazing to see the impact that we have. During my stay, the public holiday Youth Day came to pass. Youth Day serves to commemorate the many students who lost their lives during a peaceful demonstration against the Bantu Education Act that forced them to learn in languages they did not know and spent significantly more money on white students. We did a presentation regarding Youth Day at the juvenile detention centers. We asked them about freedom and education. The boys at Bonnytoun amazed me in their responses. Many of them spoke of how they did not feel free in the towns they came from because they were not free from danger. At the same time, many had high hopes for the future. They talked about how they needed to get an education to progress. One boy said he had disappointed his mom and wanted to improve his life to make her proud.
We also visited a township, Khayelitsha. Here people are living in extreme poverty. In many cases, the kids are not attending school. As a white person, I stood out very easily. You go with translators and guides, as the people speak Xhosa and the shacks are a maze. Walking past little kids, however, I didn’t need a translator to understand that they were in awe that a white girl was walking through the township. As most of the people in the township have been treated poorly by white people, it is really good for them to be able to build the relationships with the volunteers and who come to help. We do what we can to help these families get support from the government and make sure the kids are being taken care of and send them back to school. This was an eye-opening reminder of how lucky we are to live in the places we do.
Overall, my trip was truly amazing. All my weekends were jam packed with activities. All the people I met and worked with were kind and welcoming. While the month I was there seemed to fly by, I do truly believe that I made an impact on my cases and the people behind them. I would recommend the Projects Abroad Combined Law & Human Rights project to anyone. It is without a doubt a once in a lifetime experience that will stick with you forever!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.