Recent days have seen human rights lawyers singled out for criticism. The Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, says that “so-called” human rights lawyers are getting in the way of his plans to remove poor people from their homes in the inner city. Adam Habib questions the political judgement of “progressive lawyers” who have represented the students illegally assaulted, detained and harassed by the police and private security on and near the Wits University campus.
But this focus on lawyers, and not the everyday struggles of the people they represent, misses the point. It is not the judgement of lawyers that counts, but the decisions, experiences and actions of the people who approach them in the hope that the Constitution and the law can be used to protect their human rights, to amplify their voices, and to hold power to account.
Fighting for a Living is a series of short films commissioned by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute that tells the stories of communities faced with police violence, inadequate housing and the daily struggle to make a living. It highlights the agency and struggles of ordinary people who turn to the law for help.
Betty Gadlela heard on the radio that the police had killed her husband. In that moment, everything fell silent. The world seemed to stop. Her whole body went numb. She knew that he had been part of the Marikana strike. She was worried. She supported his struggle for a dignified wage, after 31 years of bringing home what she thought was next to nothing. But when she realised that the police were massing around the strikers at Wonderkop just before August 16,2012, she begged him to come home. She remembers saying, “Yes, we need the money. But the soul is more important. It is priceless.”
After the Marikana massacre, Mrs Gadlela joined Zameka Nungu, and the widows of others killed by the police, at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. She found the commission alienating. She believed that it gave her no space to grieve, and few answers to the questions she had about her husband’s death. But, assisted by her lawyers, she and the other widows managed to sift through the evidence and build up a picture of what had happened. Although the commission’s report was confused and inadequate, being part of the process gave her access to the truth – a partial, limited truth, but a truth nonetheless. The widows were also able to use the commission as a space in which they could tell their stories of pain and loss, and make known to the commission, and the general public, that they loved their husbands and expected justice and recompense for their loss.
Today, Mrs Gadlela, Mrs Nungu and the other widows are part of a movement to preserve the memory of Marikana, to hold the police and the state accountable for the massacre and to obtain compensation for its victims. Pain and hopelessness were transformed into action and struggle.
Mrs Gadlela’s and Mrs Nungu’s stories are told in the first film in the Fighting for a Living series:
Video: The Widows of Marikana
“The Road Home” deals with the struggle of Priviledge Mloyi, a single mother living in Chung Hua Mansions – an abandoned building in the centre of Johannesburg. After years of living peacefully in Chung Hua, Ms Mloyi, and her 250 neighbours, were illegally evicted by a property developer who wanted to renovate the building for occupation by higher-income tenants. Assisted by lawyers at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Soico-Economic Rights Institute, Ms Mloyi and her neighbours reversed their illegal eviction. In just a few hours they obtained a High Court order which gave them to right to return to their homes.
But while they were out of the building, the new owner had set to work laying waste to everything inside, in a cynical effort to make the property as squalid and unlivable as possible. Security guards who had carried out the eviction stole or destroyed the residents’ possessions – including vital means of identity, such as ID books and birth certificates. The staircase from the entrance to the first floor was destroyed. The water and electricity were cut off.
But the residents started to rebuild. They had no choice, because their only alternative was life on the streets. The Road Home tells the story of how the residents of Chung Hua Mansions resisted six further attempts to evict them illegally, and pursued the state for the provision of dignified, affordable alternative accommodation.
Video: The Road Home
Another film in the series tell the stories of informal traders in the inner city of Johannesburg, who resisted their eviction from their trading spots during Operation Clean Sweep in October and November 2014. The traders eventually convinced the Constitutional Court to hold an almost unprecedented emergency hearing to enable them to return to business.
Video: The Streets at Stake
In a fourth film, we hear from a new generation of young human rights lawyers who are continuing and enriching the struggle for human rights. They see themselves in the same tradition as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Bram Fischer, pursuing radical, empathetic approaches to lawyering which are faithful to the demands of the people, communities, trade unions and social movements that they serve. They are reshaping what it means to press for social justice in post-apartheid South Africa.
Video: Radical! The New Human Rights Lawyers
These films show that human rights are not just for lawyers, but for everyone. Respect for human rights and the freedom, dignity and equality of all is part of what it means to be South African. Lawyers are, of course, part of the story. Our Constitution, and the legal and political institutions it creates, are objects of contestation and struggle, often waged more effectively with legal resources. But the Constitution is also, and above all, a source of justice and hope for ordinary people in everyday settings: that the post-apartheid promise of a just society can be kept, and that through learning about the struggles for human rights of others, we can better understand and explore our own humanity.
The Fighting for a Living series shows people describing their own struggles and telling their own stories. There can be no better response to criticism of human rights lawyers and lawyering than the voices of those we serve. DM
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" ~ Sir Isaac Newton