The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) will be celebrating its 40 year anniversary in 2019. It is considered one of the biggest independent law clinics in Africa, with approximately 100 staff members working across four regional offices and three satellite offices.
The LRC has a prestigious history. It was established in 1979 in order to utilise the law to assist those disenfranchised by the Apartheid state. The small group of lawyers working at the time, which included the late Arthur Chaskalson, who became the first Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, represented those arrested under the pass laws, which underpinned South Africa’s devastating migrant labour system. As it expanded, the vision and reach of the organisation grew too. It took on cases such as forced removals, evictions, dispossession of land, dismissals from employment, consumer abuse, pension and unemployment insurance abuse and detention without trial.
In 1994, following the democratic elections and the shift to a developmental state, the LRC began to focus its work on protecting and promoting the Constitution and its promise of human rights for all. Today, the LRC’s doors are open to poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged people, who approach it for advice and assistance at any of their “front desks”. It is through these clients that LRC’s work is conceptualised. It seeks to involve the client and their communities at all levels of the legal process, from developing the litigation strategy to ensuring that the community’s internal organisations are supported, and their needs and interests find a voice at the national level.
Clients range from children, women, the LGBTIQ community, rural and traditional communities, landless people, farm workers and dwellers, refugees and asylum seekers, homeless people, people being evicted from their homes, people who experience hate speech and discrimination, people whose livelihoods and natural assets are threatened by mining and development, and the greater populace of South Africa.
Within its eight focus areas, the LRC engages in many different activities to support its mission and vision. It has an extensive track record of successful judgments, both in court and through negotiated settlements. It provides training opportunities for paralegals, community advice officers and members of the legal community, and makes submissions on behalf of clients to Parliament, local and international bodies and decision-making entities. The LRC also undertakes research to inform its litigation, and networks extensively with a range of international, regional and local partners.
Although the LRC is a nationally-based organisation, its work extends outside of the borders of South Africa. Its regional work is primarily aimed at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, while it also engages in the global context to share its considerable expertise in litigation, making submissions at the level of the United Nations.
The LRC’s successes are extensive. The LRC brought cases that challenged the death penalty, corporal punishment, and discrimination against HIV-positive employees. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the LRC represented several families of victims of Apartheid. In land struggles, LRC lawyers played a key role in drafting land legislation and policy. The LRC also plays a crucial role in advancing housing rights, as well as the rights of women, customary communities and children’s rights.
The education system in the Eastern Cape has benefitted from the work of the Grahamstown Regional Office regarding the delivery of furniture, infrastructure and learner support materials, as well as the payment of teachers. The LRC won the first class action case in South Africa on behalf of disabled people whose disability grants were unlawfully terminated by the Welfare Department. The LRC has also played a substantial role in the development of air quality management, waste management, energy and asbestos policies, and assisted hundreds of emerging civil society organisations in drafting their constitutions or other founding documents, and in complying with legislation to properly register for non-profit status.
The LRC has strong partnerships with the Canon Collins Legal Assistance Trust (CCELAT) in the United Kingdom and Friends of the LRC (FoLRC) in the United States. It is a member of the South African Legal Assistance Network (SALAN) and the Economic Social and Cultural Rights Network (ESCR-Net), and is part of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations (INCLO). It also works with a range of national and local organisations, community-based organisations and other partners.
Despite an excellent track record, the LRC also faces challenges on many levels. The most obvious challenge is the funding environment, which has become more constricted over time. There are more NGOs seeking funding as government service delivery becomes more piecemeal and insubstantial, and the services of NGOs are in greater demand. Despite having one of the highest rates of inequality in the world, South Africa is seen as a developed country and therefore viewed by funders as not requiring the same level of funding as less developed countries. South Africa also lacks a culture of individual giving, whereby many people donate small amounts over an extended period of time. All of these influences place a strain on the LRC to find new ways to ensure funding sustainability.
The context of LRC’s work is also shifting. Global uncertainty has thrown up moving targets and rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics. The rise of the populist agenda and the right-wing rhetoric means that LRC’s strategy for protecting human rights must constantly adapt. This is why it remains an important function of the LRC’s work to be client-driven and client-responsive. The LRC also recognises the need for transformation, both internally and externally. While it already included policies to address this, implementing transformative measures is not an easy task to undertake.
The LRC is also faced with the challenge of an unresponsive government, which views civil society with suspicion, referring to certain organisations as enemies of the state. Not only does this hamper cooperation between organisations and government departments, but it also means that the court orders are not implemented, even when the courts make it clear that government has not fulfilled its constitutional obligations. The amount of time and effort wasted defending government appeals to the LRC’s successful court orders leads to much frustration. Worse, however, is that the slow pace of litigation means that many clients die before they can reap the benefits of the LRC’s work.
The safety of the LRC’s clients are also under threat, with clients being intimidated and harassed, and even murdered. In March 2016, anti-mining activist Sikhosipi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was assassinated, which placed South Africa squarely in the eyes of the international media. Bazooka is just one of the thousands of activists across the world that have been targeted for their activism.
In many ways, the LRC exists in a particular context which is both challenging and open to challenge. South Africa has a powerful Constitution, one which allows freedom of expression, the right to associate and the right to peaceful assembly. All of these are key to the functioning of the civil society space. The South African judiciary is the least fragmented and “captured” of the state institutions and this has benefitted the LRC’s work which requires a liberal and transformative interpretation of the law in line with the Constitution.” The LRC also benefits from having a free media presence in the country and utilises this space to communicate its successes.
The LRC has always led a quiet struggle. Its focus on the law has meant that its strength lies in the black robes in the court rooms. Every court case is a story, and every judgment is a life changed or an injustice corrected. Sometimes the LRC will lose, but more often it wins. The Constitution offers itself as a powerful weapon to organisations like the LRC. Within the court system, the Constitution has a tendency to win. With it on its side, it provides the bedrock for the LRC’s ongoing and future success – the law always moves over to the side of human rights.
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