Meet the woman championing free legal advice in Cape Town’s townships
“I am as strong as the volunteers I have with me.”
- A morning spent with South Africa’s Projects Abroad Human Rights Project Manager - Maria Mulindi
In 2016, more than 25 000 hours of free legal services were provided by the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO) in South Africa. This snapshot of the South African team’s work was recently showcased in Projects Abroad’s 2016 Global Impact Report. We sat down with attorney and project manager of the Human Rights Project, Maria Mulindi, to find out what drives her, why her strength lies in the volunteers that join her team and why free legal services are needed in Cape Town.
Why do you focus so strongly on providing free legal aid to people that are underprivileged in Cape Town?
“When Projects Abroad was being set up in 1992, it was set up to help people who are underprivileged, or in need. So it wasn’t necessarily something that I brought. All I did was enhance the objective of what Projects Abroad had always been. When I began working for Projects Abroad, my team and I started doing needs assessments: Do people from this area know their rights? Do they know where they can get help? In the poorer communities, people are taken advantage of by employers, lawyers, insurance sales companies, loan sharks, or companies that give credit. For example, there is that presumption that they won’t know where to go, that they won’t have someone to advise them or that they won’t have someone to help them. That’s how it became our focus to set up a legal clinic in the township area where we go, or wherever we can be accepted.”
How many legal clinics do you have currently?
“We have three: in the townships of Mitchells Plain, Lavender Hill, and Vrygrond.”
What are the main cases you deal with in these communities?
“A lot of the cases from Lavender Hill will be about divorce, maintenance or are domestic violence related. A lot of the cases you get from Vrygrond are property related. In Mitchells Plain it varies – you never know what to expect. In all these communities you’ll find that at least in one out of three cases you are handling has the major issue of substance abuse in the background somewhere.”
Why is there a need in the country for clinics of this kind?
“When you work in human rights in South Africa, you become very aware of the social inequality. You also come to understand the after effects of apartheid – how separation came about because of the Group Areas Act and how people were divided in terms of race. You come to understand that although it is post-apartheid, the life that was pre-1994 is still in existence and therefore people are still in a state of need. A lot of the time people feel they don’t have an arm with which to fight. There are housing problems, and because of substance abuse, things like domestic violence become rife in the townships. The after effects of apartheid have not actually been dealt with.”
What do you enjoy most about your work?
“I believe that I’m called to go and assist the needy – the poor. The aspect of going in and actually rendering assistance to people who would otherwise not be able to get it – that makes my job worthwhile for me. I also love the aspect of mentoring, training and teaching volunteers.”
What is the hardest part of your job?
“Sometimes you feel like you have to beg people to do their job, at least with the third-party members you’re interacting with on behalf of the client. You feel like: ‘Why do I have to back you into a corner for you to do what you’re supposed to do, yet you’re being paid with taxpayer’s money?’ That can be frustrating.”
How much are volunteers needed in the South African Human Rights office?
“A whole lot! I am as strong as the volunteers I have with me. If they don’t put their best foot forward, it affects what we’re actually able to do. We do rely on volunteers and the more volunteers we have, the better. The longer the volunteers stay the better.”
What is your long term vision for the clinics?
“With every year, we’ve kept growing and testing our own boundaries. For example, before in divorce cases, we would just help people get the summons, fill in the forms, and then they’d have to figure out the rest of the way. Now we are actually helping people up until the point of trial. I hope we can keep growing.”
Short bio on Maria:
Maria Mulindi was born in Kenya, but has lived in South Africa since 2003 when her father relocated the family for his work as an expatriate lecturer in law, at the University of Fort Hare. Maria and her siblings completed their schooling and university education in South Africa. “It had always been in my heart to study law; I had actually done a year of law back in Kenya and then I came here and started the degree from scratch,” says Maria. Her father’s work with the United Nations – his travels and her grandfather’s work as a magistrate in postcolonial Kenya – had an influence on her decision to study law. Maria has nine siblings; three of her nine siblings are also in the field of law. She has been working with Projects Abroad for six years.