My first post – from a small café in Joburg.

I arrived in Johannesburg two weeks ago.  Although initially jet-legged and wide-eyed, the adjustment has been smooth (momentary lapses of judgment aside – including an experience on Saturday evening recounted in dramatic detail in fellow intern’s Georgina Murphy’s Law blog).

I’m here as part of the Canadian Bar Association’s ‘Young Lawyers International Program’ and posted with the Impact Litigation Unit of Legal Aid South Africa.  The Unit’s mandate is to litigate class actions against the backdrop of South Africa’s 1994 Constitution, which created class actions in South Africa with respect to violations of rights contained in the ‘Bill of Rights’.

As for a brief backgrounder, South Africa’s ‘Bill of Rights’ was heavily influenced by Canada’s ‘Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ in the post-apartheid period.  As a “Charter Child” (the term coined for young Canadians who matured under the ‘Charter of Rights and Freedoms’), this linkage provided the initial interest in journeying to South Africa and working in the field of constitutional law.  After learning more about the country’s history, culture and people, my interest has increased exponentially.  Although I’ve only been exposed to two files at my work thus far (one is a class action concerning children’s rights and the other concerns the rights of the disabled), I can already sense that the work will be meaningful and thought-provoking.

This is my first blog – and first post in my first blog.  Over the course of the coming months I hope to diarize my experience – sharing my thoughts on South African society and its legal and constitutional order, and recounting my travels and some of my nightly excursions (or a mild variation thereof).

Before concluding my first post, it seems appropriate to cite one of the quintessential books in understanding South Africa’s recent history – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” (which I just finished reading yesterday).  In it, Mandela recalls his early days practicing law in South Africa.  He writes:

“As a student, I had been taught that South Africa was a place where the rule of law was paramount and applied to all persons regardless of their social status or official position.  I sincerely believed this and planned my life based on that assumption.  But my career as a lawyer and activist removed the scales from my eyes.  I saw that there was a wide difference between what I had been taught in the lecture room and what I learned in the courtroom.  I went from having an idealistic view of the law as a sword of justice to a perception of the law as a tool used by the ruling class to shape society in a way favorable to itself.”

Of all passages in Mandela’s book, this quote has stuck with me.  As a student at McGill Law, we were frequently asked not only to understand the law, but to analyze and dissect the law, to uncover the power structures and claims of justice that underpin the legal order.  Apartheid-South Africa’s system of ‘justice’ was rife with injustices.  Post-apartheid South Africa is now a democratic society with a constitutionally enshrined ‘Bill of Rights’.  The sword of justice has thus been re-directed – aiming to promote the liberty and dignity of the South African people, rather than inequality and white domination.  In spite of this transition, a critical mind must always be mindful of the interests that are at stake, be ready to analyze the varieties of justice that are being promoted, and be able to recognize the shortcomings that still exist.

And so with these rambling thoughts, and with an inquisitive mind ready for such reflection, the journey (and blogging about the journey) begins.