Nation, World + Society

UCLA-trained lawyers from Africa fight for justice in South Africa

They return home after spending a year studying public interest law at UCLA School of Law on scholarship

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Tshidiso Thulo
Courtesy of Sonke Gender Justice

Thabang Pooe, who studied at UCLA Law last year, is working on behalf of former miners like Tshidiso Thulo, above, who contracted silicosis after inhaling silica dust during the 38 years he worked in a gold mine in South Africa. A class action lawsuit against the mining companies is pending.

South African prisoners, sickened miners and others whose human rights have been violated are gaining access to justice, thanks to a UCLA School of Law program that offers full scholarships and training to African lawyers who then take up their cause.

Last December, a superior court in Cape Town ordered the government to improve intolerable living conditions at the notorious Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility, where pre-trial detainees suffer from severe overcrowding, assaults by correctional staff, lack of exercise, malnutrition and rampant vermin infestation.

It was a breakthrough victory for the plaintiff in the case, the human rights organization Sonke Gender Justice, and several of its staff attorneys who graduated from the UCLA School of Law’s yearlong LL.M. program, through which they earned a postgraduate law degree. “Before this, there was no legal precedent on the continent as to the legal obligations of the states with regard to prison overcrowding,” says Ariane Nevin, who earned her LL.M. degree in 2015. “So it’s a big landmark.”

Now in its sixth year, the UCLA Law-Sonke Health and Human Rights Fellowship has brought 11 lawyers from South Africa and neighboring countries to Westwood to specialize in public interest law. UCLA Law provides a full scholarship, and a grant from the Ford Foundation covers their travel and living expenses. In exchange, the attorneys agree to work for a year at Sonke, a Cape Town-based nongovernmental organization that fights for social justice involving prisoners’ rights, labor abuses, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and domestic violence. In the Nguni language that is widely spoken in the region, “sonke” means “all together.”

Sonke Gender Justice
Ariane Nevin

As Sonke’s national prisons specialist, Nevin has drawn international attention to the deplorable circumstances facing prisoners, who had been arrested but not convicted, at Pollsmoor, often because they couldn’t afford to pay the equivalent of $4 for bail. The case before the Western Cape Division of the High Court of South Africa was part of a broader effort at Sonke to hold the government accountable for human rights abuses and to increase public awareness around these issues.

“We’re saying, ‘No, you can’t continue on as if this is just OK, because it’s not OK,’” Nevin says. “Thinking about the strategy of mobilization around the case, I definitely learned that at UCLA.”

That is precisely what Lara Stemple, UCLA Law’s assistant dean for LL.M. and International Student Programs, hoped to achieve when she started the fellowship in 2011.

“Law and public interest advocacy is becoming more global,” says Stemple, who also directs the school’s Health and Human Rights Law Project. “It’s very exciting to have southern African students at UCLA become part of the network that students and faculty build here. There’s a two-way learning that happens: UCLA’s J.D. students get a lot out of their interactions with the Sonke students, and the Sonke students get connected to lawyers who are working on similar topics and get trained by excellent professors in the field.”

UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin adds that “the Sonke Fellows are some of the best young lawyers in their countries, and UCLA Law’s strength in public interest law and human rights helps them further develop their skills and training so they can establish themselves as leaders back home in southern Africa. Their presence at UCLA Law also enriches our school and expands the network of highly trained UCLA Law graduates advocating for human rights around the world.”

Stopping the brain drain

The UCLA Law-Sonke fellowship helps fill an important need in South Africa, where there are few public interest lawyers. Its innovative structure also avoids the all-too-common problem of “brain drain,” when the brightest minds go abroad to school and don’t return home to work, says Emily Nagisa Keehn, a 2010 UCLA Law graduate who is now an associate director of Harvard’s Human Rights Program.

Working with Stemple, Keehn, an American, helped develop the fellowship after she earned her J.D. from UCLA Law and then worked for several years at Sonke. “It’s best if this work is done by the people who are most affected, who are closest to the issues and are from that context themselves,” she says.

Sonke Gender Justice
Thabang Pooe

One such lawyer is Thabang Pooe, who got her LL.M. degree last year. She grew up in a rural village called Kgabalatsane and journeyed daily, starting before dawn, to the city of Pretoria for school. That trip exposed her to the nation’s inequalities. “The stark difference in infrastructure and basic services ensured that, from an early age, I was aware of my position in society,” she says. So she became a lawyer and leader in social justice movements.

Now working at Sonke, Pooe is advocating for dozens of gold miners who are stricken with silicosis, an incurable lung disease, and who are involved in a class action lawsuit against 32 companies. Sonke is helping in the case, the largest of its kind in South Africa, to win compensation for workers’ health care costs and lost wages related to the debilitating illness.

Pooe says the UCLA Law-Sonke fellowship helped her become a more innovative advocate, and the classes she took in the school’s Critical Race Studies Program, the only program of its kind offered in the U.S., gave her a deeper understanding of the challenges of social justice work. “The exposure to Critical Race Studies has given me the ability to name and explain the genesis of some of the injustices that continue to haunt South Africa,” she says.

Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility

Soon, more Sonke Fellows will be returning to the continent to take up the fight. Nabeelah Mia, one of two Sonke Fellows graduating from UCLA Law this year, had been a corporate lawyer in Cape Town. At UCLA, she has jumped into projects in the school’s International Human Rights Clinic and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Racism and Xenophobia. Mia says that she is preparing to work on prison reform when she returns to South Africa.

“The educational experience that you get at UCLA Law is invaluable: The way I’m taught here, the level of engagement from the lecturers and the level of investment in me is something that I’ve never experienced at home,” Mia says.

“I need that exposure to the brilliant minds here — people that have run amazing projects in different aspects of human rights — so that I can take it and be an effective lawyer back home.”

This story is posted on the UCLA Law website. To learn more about the abuses at Pollsmoor, see this CNN video.

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