Community advice offices fulfill a vital role in educating South Africans about their human rights. They provide legal advice at the community level, particularly in rural areas where residents have little access to the formal justice system. The SJI is proud to be partnering with organisations that support such initiatives. Here, we profile two of them and the amazing work they do on the ground.

CCJD The Centre for Community Justice and Development

The Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD), based in Pietermaritzburg, services 15 community advice offices in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Established under the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s, it has since become an independent non-profit, but still works closely with the university through its research programme. Today, the CCJD’s ambit includes a community outreach programme, a training programme, and a research programme. The support services provided by the CCJD to its advice offices include fundraising, administering and distributing funds to
offices, capacity building, mentorship and guidance, and monitoring and evaluation.

Explains director Jabu Sangweni: “The community advice offices we support are located strategically within police stations and magistrate’s courts and traditional courts. The aim is to ensure that disadvantaged communities have easy access to legal services.”

This is particularly important in sensitive cases such as domestic violence, where often a victim is reluctant to lay charges against a breadwinner, and the abuse simply escalates. For such vulnerable people, the advice office offers a safe space.

“We do education and awareness programmes, provide legal advice and mediation, and resolve the reported cases. When needed, we provide counselling to the victim and even bring in the husband to discuss the problem,” she says. In complicated cases, the paralegals employed by the CCJD – who are drawn from the communities in which they work – will refer the complainant to institutional partners for further assistance. 

Sangweni says the offices also deal with labor-related issues. “They operate in deep rural areas, where there are issues of unfair dismissal, and also those relating to social grants and lack of documentation such as IDs and birth certificates.”

The paralegals also have to deal with cases of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and mediate in social disputes. “We don’t turn anyone away,” says Sangweni. “We’re there at the community level, trying to make sure that we cut through bureaucracy and language barriers. It’s hard to access services if you can’t articulate your needs.”

Importantly, the CCJD is making strides towards becoming financially self-sustaining. It initiated a social enterprise programme, through which it has introduced consultancy services: other organisations approach the CCJD requiring its expertise, and it charges them a consultancy fee. This income goes towards supporting its community advice offices. In addition, it has invested in a property that it leases to the university to house first-year students and looks after its long-serving paralegals who are ready to retire.

“These community offices are very close to our hearts, and we knew we had to sustain them or they’d collapse,” says Sangweni. “Having a sustainability strategy in place has been very helpful.” .

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The Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) has been around for 35 years, having been established to advocate for human rights and social justice philanthropy during the apartheid era. “Since democracy, we’ve still been focusing on human rights violations because there’s little legal assistance for people who can’t afford it,” explains SCAT director Joanne Harding. “It’s our duty to help make our democracy work.”

SCAT gives financial support to 25 advice offices principally located in the rural areas of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, and Free State. These paralegals handle some 40 000 cases per year, providing legal advice and resolving disputes.

She says many of these offices are in courts or municipal buildings, but several are located in old houses and unused offices. “The majority of cases the paralegals hear are about social grants, labour cases among farmworkers and domestic workers, or unfair dismissals among people who are working for small businesses but are far from the CCMA. The local advice offices are their closest port of call.”

SCAT funds these offices, with part of its grant taking the form of an incentive to reward each office’s own fundraising efforts to build resilience and skills. But its role doesn’t end there: it also trains paralegals and builds their capacity to run effective organisations. Included in this is looking at how the paralegals themselves have been socialised within their own communities to respond to, for example, gender-based violence.

Harding is frank about the role played by civil society organisations such as SCAT: “Civil society, including community advice offices, has played a critical role in challenging the high levels of corruption and poor governance. With very little resources, we’ve been holding back the tide of corruption, which has been exposed, although not yet stopped. 

“If we didn’t have a strong civil society, where would we be? That’s why we need to strengthen society at community level, and community advice offices play a very important role in achieving this.”

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