Justice is neither cheap nor freely given. It is often inaccessible and abstract for those who need it the most.
Historically, South African human rights organizations have sought to make justice and the promise of dignity for all a reality, as affirmed in the Constitution. Undoubtedly, community-based advice offices – staffed by para-legals based within communities – have and continue to play a strong role in the link between the deep expectations of promise and the reality of the reclamation of rights.
Driving into Tshwane in the first few weeks of Spring, we visited the Community Advice Offices of South Africa (CAOSA), the umbrella body of more than ??? paralegals who are based in the townships and rural areas of South Africa.
CAOSA is at the centre of a buzzing city where hawkers, students, the unemployed and many of those drawn to the promise of the City, compete for space, cross intersections and carry on with their daily life. As we enter the building, we are courteously shown to the first floor where we meet Tshenolo Tshoaedi, who leads the work of CAOSA.
One of CAOSA’s primary functions is to oversee the measures that regulate the work of community-based advice offices. Further CAOSA’s work is also about contributing to the sustainability of community-based advice offices.
Tshoaedi is very clear about the contemporary space that these organizations occupy in the socio-political landscape. ‘The space that we now occupy is about protecting and advancing the principles of democracy, constitutionalism and access to basic human rights’. Advice Offices, according to Tshoaedi, then become about ‘enabling people to have a space to solve their legal problems (and concerns)’. Moreover, they are able to translate complex legal processes to claim rights, into an accessible and practicable tool to achieve social justice.
‘More than that, advice offices’, Tshoaedi adds, ‘create a space for learning, and doing broader social justice work, ensuring that state institutions at a local level know that there is an institution in the community that is working to hold them to account’. Viewed in this way, the work, even when under-resourced, is ‘still needed’. It is primarily about ‘giving power back to the people’.
Donors help strengthen these community based institutions, which are usually operated from garages, churches, and schools in some instances.
Tshoaedi views the investment made in the work of social justice organizations as an investment in healing: ‘Healing is a huge part of what justice brings … ensuring that this democracy grows and matures, and doesn’t disintegrate.’
Reflecting on the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tshoaedi believes that South Africans ‘have much to lose’ by overlooking the barriers to accessing justice.
A recent assessment by CAOSA found that in response to COVID 19, advice offices are reorienting their efforts and time towards awareness raising, supporting the medical and Gender Based Violence response (through psycho-social and medical referral capacity), collaborative convenings and outreach focused on food security. ‘It is the work that contributes to and gives real-life application to Nelson Mandela’s injunction; that we pursue the reconstruction and development (‘RDP’) of the soul’.
A critical challenge lies in the resourcing (both human and financial) of these organizations and their ultimate sustainability.
The donor landscape has become more limited, with the competition for resources. Notwithstanding these challenges, Tshoaedi notes that there remains a strong core of dedicated donors who continue to support the work undertaken in this sector. It is to these donors that CAOSA has looked towards, and increasingly, as Tshoaedi remarks, ‘to individuals’ interested in strengthening democracy.
‘Democracy is, and should remain everybody’s concern, in your little corner as an individual, or as a corporate, you have as much to lose as the woman who is abused, or as the employee who does not have access to redress should they find themselves in a situation of disadvantage.’