Not all lawyers join the heady world of commerce – drafting contracts, litigating for industry and overseeing mergers and acquisitions.
Unlike in the movies either, not all attorneys are defence lawyers. It’s worth re-stating. In South Africa, many lawyers on completing their studies join a long tradition of ‘human rights lawyers’ of all races, genders and persuasions whose primary task is to wield the weapon of law and jurisprudence in defence of the voiceless and those deemed invisible.
Palesa Madi, an attorney and the Acting Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) is one such lawyer. Born in Mohlakeng in the West Rand town of Randfontein, Madi is an author, lecturer and attorney. For her, this route began when she joined the student organization, Students for Law and Social Justice.
‘It became apparent to me that I could use the law to bring about social change …that you could help people improve their lives or access opportunities and justice through the use of law,’ Madi says.
She joined CALS as an intern in 2013. CALS is a public interest law organization founded in 1978 by Professor John Dugard as a legal research unit within the University of the Witwatersrand. CALS has always been a thorn on the side of those who exercise power and authority in ways that alienate and marginalize the poor.
During the Apartheid era, CALS was involved in many initiatives aimed at holding the South African government accountable for its actions, especially in the areas of security legislation and policing.
It was engaged in extensive research and education programmes both within and outside of the legal arena.
Increasingly CALS found itself in the courts with the Apartheid state, litigating on issues related to labour relations, the Group Areas Act and the pass laws.
When black trade unions started to organize after the publication of the Wiehahn Report in 1979, CALS was one of the organizations that took on the firms who were ‘slack about health and safety matters’.
With Apartheid coming to an end formally in the early 1990s, CALS continued to focus on the varied manifestations of its overhang on South African society.
‘Our programmes focus on business and human rights and we also have an environmental justice programme where we focus a lot on the mining sector; we have the civil and political justice programme and a land, home and rural democracy programme helping people to defend unlawful evictions and access basic human rights like water and electricity,’ Madi says. CALS also has a gender justice programme focused on ensuring that criminal prosecutions against perpetrators are brought to a finality in the interests of survivors. ‘Our focus is also to ensure that the institutions that are responsible to protect women are held accountable where they fail to protect women.’
‘We try and take on cases that will have a larger social impact; so it wont just benefit that particular client, but it will set a precedent and fundamentally change the law so that other people, in a position similar to that client, will also benefit from that judgement.’
A public interest law organization like CALS plays a critical role in ‘furthering the transformative constitutionalism project’, holding the state, corporations and individuals accountable for their role in violating or enabling the violation of citizen’s human rights.
For Madi, every day is an opportunity to use the ‘law and letter’ of the rights enshrined in our Constitution; to bring tangible benefits to the marginalized and overlooked in our society. From her introduction to CALS during her student days, it seems Madi has come full circle, as she suggested even as a student she had already started to think of how she could ‘creatively use the law to think about the solutions to the varied problems we face in this country.’
‘This work cannot continue if we are not well-resourced,’ Madi points out.
It was the conscious philanthropic impulses of the likes of the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that initially underwrote the public interest litigation and applied research of CALS during Apartheid. In this phase of its growth and in relation to the shifting and complex mix of challenges it has to respond to, CALS needs the continued support of South African philanthropists to sustain its work.
‘I urge individuals, corporations and the state to play their part… so that we all equally benefit from a better society,’ Madi says. The next phases of our democratic journey will require bringing the law and in particular the Constitutionally-enshrined promises, closer to the day-to-day exigencies of life in this new society. The work of Palesa Madi and CALS will no doubt be invaluable on that journey.