Volunteer Review: Sarah K., Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
Being Namibian born I had already traveled extensively in South Africa visiting close family members, and knowing the Cape Town environs well, I certainly wasn’t the stereotypical volunteer stepping off the plane. I didn’t come armed with preconceived notions of ‘AFRICA’, but rather a desire to witness for myself how far the country had progressed in an ever-changing political climate, and more importantly, contribute meaningfully to efforts to engender transitional justice.
Professionally, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my placement at Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO). Whilst embracing the rich cultural heritage of the Western Cape, during the two months I interned, I encountered experiences ranging from the joyous, comedic and adventurous to the distressing and tragic.
Shortly after joining the team, I realized that the density and scope of our work would irrevocably alter my personal perspective. Despite its ‘Rainbow Nation’ status, there remain stark reminders of the acute equality divisions between members of South African society. With these complexities existing, I simply couldn’t comprehend why large numbers of foreign immigrants and displaced refugees revered South Africa as the ‘pot of gold at the end of the continent’. It wasn’t until I assisted in transcribing heart-rending victim testimonies for UNHCR ‘third country’ resettlement that I realized both their overwhelming desire for peace and security, and, the power of human resilience.
During field trips to Youngsfield Military Base safety camp for refugee victims of last year’s xenophobic violence, I learnt firsthand the numerous obstacles (and threats) that these people face on an almost daily basis. It was humbling to experience the gratitude with which the residents received basic food and hygiene parcels being distributed by myself, Theodore Kamwimbi (the PAHRO program director) and another female colleague using money obtained from donations. The day became even more poignant when I was invited to sample freshly brewed tea together with chapattis straight from a makeshift stove!
I spent much time befriending the residents of Youngsfield and within weeks was simply referred to as either ‘Sister’ or ‘Auntie’. I later came to understand that these terms of endearment represented the immense trust and faith that these people had placed in me, as a PAHRO volunteer, to help alleviate their heavily burdened lives.
In an effort to coordinate our missions to Youngsfield, I compiled a detailed record of all their official registration numbers whilst ascertaining whether legal assistance was required in order to secure ‘status’ documentation. This process culminated in us taking several residents to the Department of Home Affairs reception centre in Nyanga Township; an experience in itself! If ever I had doubted the level of corruption and complete mayhem that reigns in South African governmental departments, this trip quickly reaffirmed my suspicions. Relative disorganization soon descended into minor rioting as understandably frustrated men and women protested at the lack of effectual assistance given unless they were prepared to pay hefty bribes. Needless to say we failed to accomplish our objective of getting some asylum claimants formerly processed by officials, though our commitment to providing tangible forms of assistance nevertheless earned us their respect.
On a more upbeat note, I will forever cherish the huge smiles on the faces of the Youngsfield kids as we took them by minibus taxi on an excursion to St. James Beach. It was hoped that exposure to a stimulating environment, however brief, would help dispel the sheer boredom and hopelessness to which they had succumbed. Seeing them all sitting wide-eyed eating samosas whilst watching the waves, and later navigating the rock pools in search of the perfect shell, was a remarkable experience, especially when considering the stiflingly restrictive confines of the camp. The thankful hugs we received when traveling back to the camp, were testament to the ‘actions speaker louder than words’ philosophy we had all adopted as volunteers.
There is no substitute for the hands on experience I acquired during my stint as a PAHRO intern. I was able to gain maximum exposure to the practices of consortium agencies working with refugee and asylum seekers, providing an invaluable insight into the dynamics of these service providers. Additionally, one cannot help but be infected by the unwavering passion and dedication of Theo, who made me conscious of the need to ensure that any breach of human rights is not only represented in (inter)national conversation but subject to direct frontline response. Similarly, the people of Youngsfield are forever etched in my mind, and it is with gratitude to them, that my life has found new direction and purpose.
For anyone contemplating taking the plunge and heading to Cape Town to volunteer, don’t be dissuaded by the crime statistics and crippling poverty that lies beyond that famous ‘tablecloth’; seize the moment with both hands for it is an incredibly worthwhile cause and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
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.