Cheyenne in South Africa

Cheyenne is a junior from Dallas majoring in public policy, with a minor in economics and human rights. She traveled with a group of 15 students, faculty and community members on a trip August 2-12 to South Africa, led by SMU Human Rights Program director Rick Halperin. The trip focused on the events and landmarks of apartheid, the system of racial segregation enforced there by the white-controlled government from 1948 to 1989.

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Human rights in action

Today we visited three NGO’s, all which were very different in their set-up, but striving for the same thing: to promote democracy and social justice in Johannesburg communities.

Helping young refugees
The first organization we visited was the Refugee Children’s Project in downtown Jo’burg. Our guide Paul became very nervous when taking us downtown, and told us he never brings white tourists to this area. Inside the building there was no heat, and I was freezing.

The organization was formed in 2002, and now has a staff of seven. Their mission is to integrate refugee kids in South Africa and advocate for children’s rights. They are broken up into two departments. The education department works to provide assistance in the form of transportation, meals, supplies, uniforms and counseling to locals and refugee kids. The advocacy department speaks on behalf of the children, striving to ensure local children and refugee children obtain the same rights and access to services.

Most child refugees come from central Africa and especially Zimbabwe, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Congo. Unlike America, South Africa does not limit the number of refugees allowed to enter their country. Because of the recent trouble in Zimbabwe, the RCP said there might be as many as 6,000 Zimbabwe refugees per week crossing the border into South Africa. We learned how the traditional African spirit of “Ubuntu” plays a role in South Africa’s loose immigration laws. Ubuntu essentially means “what’s your is mine, we are all human beings, therefore we shall all have access to the same opportunities.”

Building peace
Next we drove to the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. This organization was started in the late 1980s, when most people thought apartheid would never end. They strive to promote peace and reconciliation through advocacy research and partnerships with the local government and other NGO’s. There are six programs: the criminal justice program, peace building, gender-based violence, trauma center, transitional justice, and truth and reconciliation committee, which work together in achieving the center’s mission.

We meet with Nahla Valji, who is a young woman from Canada working on the transitional justice program. She was extremely intelligent and fascinating to listen to. Transitional justice is something I am especially interested in and hearing Nahla’s story about how she came from Canada to volunteer in South Africa was inspiring for most of us on the trip, especially all the girls interested in this type of work. She also touched on the different types of skills needed in the social services field. Some of the most needed skills in this organization are those that have the capacity to blend with human rights knowledge, like the need for a forensic scientist and physiologist with human rights knowledge would be of great help.

Growing democracy
The third NGO we visited was called IDASA in Pretoria, South Africa. This organization is designed to strengthen South Africa’s new democracy and promote social justice. They told us how they wanted to empower the citizens to take part in politics because the heart of politics lies with people. They also touched on the high crime rates in South Africa, the country with the highest occurrence of rape in a non-war country. The new South African government is unique in that it offers equal rights to all people, and IDASA works to ensure people are getting what the constitution states.

Also, one of the speakers noted how though South Africa has only had its democracy for 13 years, that they were way ahead of the U.S. in terms of guaranteeing human rights. She posed the question to all of us that though it was great we were coming to South Africa to learn about their situation, we should all go home and take a look at our own government because she feels there is more work to be done there.

Some of us in the group were a bit taken that she would say that to us, but I was kind of glad she did. It seems almost like we would be missing the point if we headed off to a beautiful foreign country to do human rights work when we would be leaving our own country, which needs a lot of work, behind. It was kind of good to be reminded that though human rights work in South Africa could be glamorous and appealing, America is in need of activists and citizens ready to tackle her own problems.

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