South Africa

Section27: ‘Everywhere they need help – we just give them help’

By Greg Nicolson 15 May 2013

The Limpopo textbook scandal came to our attention courtesy of public interest law group Section27. The organisation has been criticised by the state and drawn controversy from its inception. GREG NICOLSON meets the team and finds that not only are they committed to ensuring the rights of South Africans are met, but they’re a group of committed “crazy people”.

On the cusp of the weekend, between finishing work and going home, a group of lawyers, activists and researchers sit around a table in a Braamfontein office. They’re tired but the conversation jumps between the trashiest reality TV, the importance of reading versus computer games and lobola. They speak of their amazing/infuriating children, why they’re not married yet, or why they should never get married.

The table offers a range of drinks but those around the table hold their glasses rather than refill them. On one wall are shelves of South African Law Reports. Another holds stacks of newspapers next to a library organised under different labels: HIV/Aids, Medicine, Procedural, Family and Persons, Human Rights, LGBT, Constitution, and Human Rights.

Welcome to Section27. The employees around the table are the very same people guys like the SACP’s Blade Nzimande and Sadtu’s Mugwena Maluleke have called foreign-funded agents of imperialism masquerading as civil society advocates trying to discredit and dislodge the ANC.

But on the walls are newspaper headlines heralding the organisation’s achievements, such as improving access to education and healthcare. At each desk is another case or project to ensure South Africans are afforded the rights they’re entitled to by the law (or any basic standards of decency).

Three years ago, Section27 was born out of the Aids Law Project and immediately gained attention. First, it caused controversy when Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office (Cipro) officials said an NGO couldn’t be named after part of the Constitution (section 27 of the Constitution ensures the right to healthcare, food, water and social security). Second, only months after Section27’s launch the ANC was already accusing it of plotting against the party with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Cosatu when it hosted a civil society conference without inviting the ruling party.

Founded in 1992, the Aids Law Project was one of South Africa’s most successful post-Apartheid human rights organisations but Mark Heywood, now Section27’s executive director, and Adilla Hassim, Section27’s head of legal and litigation, decided to close the organisation and form the new initiative due to the environmental changes since the Aids Law Project had begun.

Outside the Constitutional Court, while community members demonstrate at the Rivonia Primary School case, Heywood explains: “When the Aids Law Project was founded the epidemic in South Africa was relatively small, in its early days. The law was undeveloped. There was not a TAC. There hadn’t been a Thabo Mbeki and process of Aids denialism. So all that had changed. The question we asked ourselves was: how do we sustain the methods of the Aids Law Project, which was a combination of activism, social mobilisation and use of the law, but apply it in a new environment?

“That’s why we decided to close the Aids Law Project, literally terminate its existence, and set up Section27, with a focus on health, education, rule of law and civil society building,” says Heywood.

He is interrupted by other journalists looking for a quote (Section27 supported the Gauteng department of education’s challenge to override the school’s admission policy). Before returning, Heywood addresses the crowd, focusing on the importance of quality education for all and finishing with a raspy “Amandla!

“There’s been a bit of an explosion,” says Heywood. “The more Section27 has become visible publicly, a lot of people just contact us and say there’s corruption in my school, there’s corruption in my hospital, or this problem or that problem and we have to do everything we can to assist every person who comes to us… When someone comes to us it means they’ve taken the decision to say they have trust in legal process, they have trust in the Constitution. So even if we can’t help them directly, we make a point to refer them to another legal organisation.”

Section27’s public profile grew in 2012 with the Limpopo textbook scandal and has created more and more work for the organisation’s receptionist, Phindi Mlotshwa. On Friday, she’s taken four calls just from inmates complaining about the conditions in prison. After Section27’s involvement in the Dudley Lee case, which helped define the state’s legal responsibility to meet the rights of detainees, the inmates keep calling, she says. The organisation works closely with the TAC, with which it has maintained a very close relationship since it was formed.

Section27 is well known for the fight over textbooks with the Department of Basic Education and Limpopo department of education but the organisation focuses on a wide range of issues around healthcare, education, good governance, education and, recently, the right to food. It now represents 29 school governing bodies dealing with issues such as access to education, discrimination, infrastructure and sanitation.

The organisation is fighting to establish a health clinic in Lusikisiki, a village in the Eastern Cape, where the clinic was moved to tents without electricity or running water. It has released a document, “Monitoring Our Health”, detailing the problems in the Gauteng health system. It’s also working to reduce sexual violence in schools and continues to comment on and offer advice in key policy areas. The list goes on.

Section27 has been criticised for taking the state to court rather than constructively working with officials to solve problems together. If the organisation decided to work with government rather than waste time and money litigating, the country’s challenges could be confronted much sooner, goes the argument. But Section27 does work with government. On various issues it’s partnered with the state and generally goes to court only after multiple attempts at liaising with the relevant department.

Still, comments from political leaders carry significant weight. Nthabi Pooe, a research assistant, came on board as an intern from Students for Law and Social Justice, one of the new generation of human rights lawyers Heywood says the organisation is trying to build. She comes from a family of ANC supporters and was active in the ANC Youth League at university. Her father didn’t understand why she would work for an NGO while her political friends labeled her a traitor. “I started knowing what I wanted in life,” says Pooe in a Section27 office, “Keeping those friendships or trying to make a difference.”

Her views on the government have “drastically” changed since joining the organisation, she says. “I thought government worked and once aware of a challenge they’d fix it… Now I’m more realistic. You might have to send four or five letters and file for litigation first.” Pooe, who will soon leave the organisation for to further her legal training, says Section27 is “a group of crazy people who don’t know how to say no”.

And therein lies the organisation’s key challenge. Section27 has a staff of 21 plus a handful of interns but is inundated with reports of citizens who don’t feel their rights are being met. Asked how the organisation will handle the increasing demands, Heywood says, “That’s the question. I’m not quite sure where we’re going. I don’t see Section27 as becoming a massive bureaucracy. I think its strength is having a professional, small number of skilled activists and if you grow too big you lose that family feeling. All I can say is, it’s attention.”

Perhaps Mlotshwa, the receptionist and point of call for anyone getting in touch, says it best. “There are many different cases ­– at school, at home, at work – everywhere they need help. We just give them help.” DM

Photo by Reuters.

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