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2 Week Specials, Human Rights in South Africa by Emma Smale

Emma Smale – Human Rights High School Special in South Africa

Why South Africa

High School Special volunteer standing on a mountain in Cape Town

My love of South Africa rose from studying its history in my final years of school. The reason for this is because, rather paradoxically, it gives me an overwhelming sense of hope. The relentless fighting against apartheid at grass roots and international levels is empowering. So when I was looking to do something productive this summer, preferably somewhere not particularly hot, it was easy for me to decide on South Africa. My love of history meant I could not avoid the possibility of walking where the people in my textbook had, and my interest in politics and equality lead me to choose a two-week Human Rights High School Special.

Arrival and Host Family

Imizamo Yethu settlement in Hout Bay

I’m not going to lie, I was incredibly nervous about going through border control with the prospective ordeal of hunting down the Projects Abroad placard. I was so paranoid, I printed off all the e-mails of correspondence between myself and my Projects Abroad volunteer advisor to have in a wallet on hand as a sort of comfort blanket. However, there was absolutely no need for me to worry. The Capetonians in the airport are so welcoming that you know this is where you should be, and you wonder why you didn’t come sooner.

It was raining heavily upon arrival, however that wasn’t a shock given my habitual compulsion to check Cape Town weather in the weeks leading to the placement. Makeshift homes with corrugated metal and uneven roofs packed densely on the way to my host family were the only indication I was no longer in England but a developing country influenced by Western culture. I cannot describe my thought process at that point because I did not have one; I think it was just suspended belief.

Once we (myself and fellow volunteers) got to our house we were introduced to our host family and the resident guard dog. I lived in what became the ‘hub’; everybody congregated in the evenings to play tense games of Uno and Mafia where friendships were both made and broken. Throughout the two weeks we became a family (to be sentimental) with the obligatory group chat, nicknames corresponding to fruit. It also enhanced the lure of languages; I learnt how to say 'hello little butterfly' in Japanese and 'I am tasty' in French. Where else are you going to need these phrases but with a group of strangers you've been thrust into familiarity with?

Our host family was amazing; Tasneem was our host mother, and her enthusiasm about what we were doing and her love for what she did was infectious and truly made me feel at home. The food we ate was amazing, as well, and Tasneem’s brownies are renowned for being the best and most delicious in the world; whenever a tray of them was served it was a race to get a piece. It was also Tasneem who introduced me to malva pudding, a traditional South African pudding, which I am also now itching to make at home.

My Human Rights Project

Law & Human Right volunteers with the locals at an informal settlement in Hout Bay

The first week was spent with the twelve of us Human Rights volunteers divided into prosecution and defence for a case the legal office was working on, with our efforts being surmised in a moot court trial at the end of the week. This was insanely daunting given the fact barely any of us had any experience in law besides what we see on television, and a number struggled with English. However, that just made the experience of standing in front of thirty/forty odd interns and qualified lawyers, giving statements and arguing rebuttals sweeter. It felt simultaneously like an episode of ‘Law and Order’ or ‘Suits’ crossed with ‘Final Destination’.

I was on the side of the defence, and rather crushingly - and unjustly, our side decided - lost the case. However, the loss was not really a loss because we had gained so much experience and a vast understanding of South African law which had consequently sparked debates about cultural and governmental differences, epitomised by the discussion of British traffic wardens when speaking to a Traffic Officer. We were able to ask questions and expand our thought processes, and going to a police station was both incredibly insightful and surreal because for the first time it brought us a little closer to the reality of life in South Africa. One of the ways I learnt to understand a country is by understanding the nature of its most common crimes and laws under which they are dictated.

Our second week was spent within the community - specifically the informal settlement of Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. The settlement suffered a serious fire, burning houses in March resulting in a mass of temporary housing being erected at the bottom of the mountain. The city’s intervention and efforts to deal with the tension has consequently not been effective, meaning residents are angry about their situation and feel dismissed. Whilst this was scary sometimes because I developed a guilt complex (especially upon realising that I had more money on my card than the residents received in a month on an average salary), going into the community and conducting surveys and talking to them (hearing their words of fury) invaluably taught me the distinction between freedom and equality, but also how both are dependent on one another to not only be a theory in law.

View of Cape Town

We spent a lot of time with the children of these settlements: playing football, piggybacking, letting them plait our hair, painting faces, playing limbo and just talking with them. They are some of the most happy, inquisitive and competitive people I have ever met, and it just goes to show that the reason they feel inhibited is not really genetics, but the remnants of history. Celebrating Mandela Day by carpeting their classroom only stood to reinforce that.

We also helped install a water pump to teach them about the water crisis and water pollution. We investigated two points of the Disa River affected by the settlements waste. It was fun to get into the water and stomp around for a bit, catching bugs and beasties and getting stuck in what apparently was not mud.

There’s a bittersweet aspect of being in the settlement during this time because we were not able to go the last couple of days due to riots and the burning down of houses in protest to evictions. This only emphasised the dire situation the residents were in and meant we all came to understand their plights on a different level, when standing in a room for a family of 6 to live in that is no bigger than my kitchen. It has haunted me, creating a resolve that will carry through and beyond university as I embark on a career that will always keep human rights, and by default South Africa, in mind.

Free time in South Africa

It was not all research, reading, snooping on the other team, gluing or digging, though. We had socials every Tuesday and Thursday evening, such as enjoying Caribbean food and going to a trampoline park as well as learning to (poorly) play on the African drum.

We also visited Table Top Mountain, Robben Island and went on a Peninsula tour, going to Seal Island, visiting the penguins, and then climbing up to Cape Point and scrambling over Cape of Good Hope. Words cannot describe nor can photos do these justice. I am glad they were masterfully woven into the schedule so we received the optimal combination of holiday and work experience.

There was a point, right at the end of the two weeks, where it hit me how much this project will stay with me. There was a live, African band where we ate, and all us volunteers from Human Rights, Building and Care and Community with the staff went to the front and danced. It was in that moment where I was happy and grateful that I had endured a 12-hour flight, endured exams and studying and applied for the project. This first taste of independence is something that has shaped my career choices as well as created a love and fascination for South Africa that I am sure will become an obsession, and manifest into me visiting again.

Emma Smale

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