Ultra Vires


A (Remote) Summer with the SASLAW Pro Bono Project

Practicing international human rights law remotely

The Flag of South Africa
The Flag of South Africa. Photo by Chris Eason (Wikimedia Commons)

This summer, I had the privilege of being one of the three fellows for the South African Society for Labour Law (SASLAW) Pro Bono Project. As I am sure was the case with every International Human Rights Program (IHRP) Fellow with plans abroad this year, the university-wide moratorium on international travel was a bitter pill to swallow at first. The SASLAW Pro Bono Project, now entering the third year of its partnership with the Faculty of Law, was set to host selected students in Johannesburg where we would have helped assist unrepresented and indigent litigants at South Africa’s four Labour Courts. 

However, while we were unable to get that hands-on experience, the IHRP and SASLAW allowed us to assist several meaningful and inspiring legal projects over the summer, dealing with land justice, workers’ rights, and Indigenous rights. In particular, I had the opportunity to work with the Land Rights Programme at the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), a human rights organization and legal clinic with a formidable history of resisting apartheid injustices. 

Laid out in the LRC’s most recent strategy, land justice is currently at the top of their agenda, given that inequitable access to land underpins many of their country’s most persistent struggles. Indeed, it is reported that, while de jure apartheid ended almost 25 years ago, 72 percent of arable land remains in the hands of White South Africans, who account for just fewer than 10 percent of the total population. Furthermore, a large number of South Africans reside in informal urban settlements, which deny many residents security of tenure and access to safe and healthy living. 

I joined the team as they had just kicked into gear to take on several high-impact land rights cases. One particularly interesting project I assisted involved exploring recordal systems for recognizing the de facto rights of land occupants. Many countries grapple with instituting and maintaining systems of first registration, which formally grant tenure rights to those who are otherwise shut out from vital property rights. These endeavours are often targeted at those living in informal settlements and Indigenous communities with customary tenure, among others, and vastly vary in success. 

In South Africa, labour tenants — specifically, farm dwellers who derive their rights to be on and use land through providing labour to the landowner — are also shunted to this precarious legal position. Accordingly, these farm dwellers’ rights as workers are inextricably tied up with their struggle for land rights. To support the LRC in tackling this issue, I researched different models of recording tenure rights and examined the strengths and weaknesses of each. This research will be used to glean insights that can be applied to the fraught context of labour tenancy in South Africa.

I also had the incredible opportunity to lend research support to the appeal of a ground-breaking land claim led by the Hai||om people in Namibia. Like other Indigenous communities around the world, the Hai||om people were dispossessed of their ancestral lands. The community is now fighting to have their land rights over the famous Etosha National Park recognized. 

One key battleground has been the issue of standing: the Hai||om litigants want to represent themselves without having to defer to the Hai||om Traditional Authority, a creature of the Namibian government whose interests as such inexorably conflict with the interests of the community. To help further flesh out this issue, I was tasked with examining comparative and international authorities on minority rights, Indigenous rights, and procedural law. This research will assist the Hai||om people in charting their litigation strategy for what has shaped up to be a long road to justice. 

Though all this work was completed remotely — and on a six-hour time difference from the countries in question — I frequently got face time with the lawyers supervising my work. Zoom conferences provided several opportunities to discuss the projects to which I was assigned, as well as delve into broader conversations about human rights advocacy and progressive lawyering on the whole. 

These interactions, coupled with my research work, allowed me to gain a new appreciation for the interconnected nature of the struggles for land rights, workers’ rights, and Indigenous rights. I am grateful for the time that Petra Molnar at the IHRP, Clare Fincham at SASLAW, and the staff at their partner organizations spent to ensure I and the other fellows had a satisfying summer. 

While not the adventure abroad I envisioned, my SASLAW Pro Bono Project Fellowship still proved to be an educational and motivating experience as I continue to find my role as a law student and soon-to-be legal professional in movements for social justice here at home. 

A version of this article appears on Rights Review’s website here.

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