This summer I have had the pleasure of working in the Legal Services Department of the South African Human Rights Commission. Living in Cape Town, I’m stationed in the Western Cape Provincial Office. The office is separated into the Parliamentary Research Unit, and the Legal Services Unit. As a Social Policy major but someone who is also pre-law, I was having a hard time choosing which area I wanted to work in for the summer. I decided that having the legal experience would be great, plus they were shorter staffed in this area. I’m really glad that I decided to work in Legal Services. As a result, I have learned so much about myself, human rights work, and South Africa throughout my internship experience.
On a basic level, working in an office in a different country is extremely different. I’ve had to learn a very different office culture. Things are much more lax here. People come to work later, take smoke breaks frequently, chat often in the hallways/offices, and personal lives are often discussed. Getting to know the nuances of a different culture has been extremely interesting.
Adding on yet another layer, working in a government office has it’s own challenges. The head office is in Johannesburg, so any type of administrative things have to be handled through them. This means that when our server goes down, we have to wait for someone from Johannesburg to come fix it, or even just call us back. Being a government office also means we are subject to strict and routine audits. Files must be immaculate and there are numerous administrative steps that have to be followed for each action taken on a case. Reports on all cases have to be filed every month, and we are supposed to close 25% of our cases each quarter. Considering the Western Cape Office has one of the highest volumes of complaints, this can put a lot of stress on the office.
On top of all of that, is the actual work itself. In a country like South Africa, still recovering from the Apartheid era, there is still so much work to be done. Like the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow on disadvantaged populations in the United States, South Africa is struggling in many of the same ways. We deal with complaints ranging from unlawful evictions, hate speech, discrimination, housing/basic needs, and more. The work is plentiful, and extremely draining. Sometimes people have traveled hours from townships just to talk to us. Going on site inspections to townships has not only given me insight for our cases, but has also given me incredible perspective on my own life and privilege.
As far as my work goes, a typical day for me at SAHRC consists mainly of consultations. We don’t take appointments, so anyone off the street can walk in the office to consult with a legal officer. When not consulting, I spend a lot of time drafting correspondence with complainants that updates them on the status of their case. I also write allegation letters to respondents, which inform them of the complaint against them and requests a written response. I’m also often tasked with doing legal research for cases. As a culminating project I’m writing a final report for a case that outlines the facts of the case, legal framework, legal analysis, and a final decision.
Not only have I gotten extensive legal experience, but I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know and work within different communities. I’m so thankful for the 2 months that I’ve spent here at the SAHRC and hope that I can return some day.