Natasha Sirrieh - Human Rights in South Africa
An unexpected but rewarding journey
Before embarking on my journey to Cape Town, I had tried to envisage what exactly was awaiting me at the other end of the twelve-hour long flight. I had found myself picturing landscapes, wildlife, poverty, the things that conjure up in your mind after telling people of your prospective journey to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Making its place on the map with its tortuous 14 year long Apartheid regime and how it grappled with reversing the submissive ingrained ideals inherent at the time you would assume that this success story had banished racial prejudice forever. Being lucky enough to live in a democratic and socially stable country, I was only able to gain an insight into the extent of South Africa’s suffering by books and the internet. Nothing had prepared me for the insight I gained first hand.
Being collected upon arrival by the father of my host-family, I had the opportunity to take a few snaps of the townships and was even lucky enough to be given a personal tour! Poverty was rife. Witnessing children playing soccer next to the highway seemed incomprehensible to me. It seemed to me almost immediately that the country lacked any structure. As I drove through the townships seeing the thousands of sardine-like stuffed shacks, crammed row upon row made it seem completely inhumane to expect any form of life to live there. Children gazed up to me as we passed them by. It was clear that there would be plenty for me to achieve whilst I spent my time in South Africa.
From my first day in the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office right up until my last, life was hectic. Either researching, preparing reports, visiting refugee camps, women’s shelters, attending Parliament there was always plenty to do. I had decided to focus my attention on the dire refugee disaster that had struck at the time of my visit, a large refugee crisis that had left the overloaded camps and shelters crucially needing support and aid. Nothing will ever erase my first memory of Youngsfield Military Base Refugee camp. Hundreds of poorly erected tents housed men, women and children of differing nationalities where they slept on small beds and had incredibly inadequate facilities. Human rights violations plagued every inch.
It was becoming increasingly frustrating when I was aware of the problems which needed addressing but achieving concrete advancements took time. I decided to help our quest in alleviating the plight of the refugees by liaising with a sister NGO of Projects Abroad called PASSOP. This organization was also interested in the refugee crisis and so together, it seemed logical that only positive things could happen.
On hearing the news that with our help one of the refugees who had approached us during our regular visits to the camp had finally obtained the sufficient documents to remain in Cape Town, the overwhelming gratification of knowing we had helped someone in need was like nothing I have experienced before.
However, it was not all heart rendering things I experienced. On one day we saw people taking part in a friendly protest against the living and working costs and conditions. It was so amazing to see such a large amount of people gathering for something they felt so passionate about. We initially watched from the window of a nearby building but then were so overwhelmed by what was going on outside the window that we rushed down and joined in with everyone. An incredible sound drifted through the air as people chanted and sang whilst dancing through the streets of Cape Town. This is the happiness that I knew that all the people of Cape Town had the potential to feel.
Despite our dedication and commitment, I knew there was still a mountain to climb for the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office volunteers in their quest to undo the endemic injustices, but each day was a step closer to the summit and realizing that our efforts weren’t made in vain made everything worthwhile. Whilst sitting on the plane returning home to my ‘normal’ life I cherished my time spent in Cape Town. Some good memories, some bad. However, they are memories that I would have never have experienced if I had just based my knowledge of South Africa from reading a book!