Thabang Pooe LL.M. ’16 (top) and Ariane Nevin LL.M. ’15 (bottom) offer legal aid to prisoners and others in South Africa.
South African prisoners, miners and others are gaining access to justice, thanks to a UCLA School of Law program that offers full scholarships to African lawyers who then perform work in the public interest in Cape Town.
Late last year, a superior court in Cape Town ordered improvements to intolerable living conditions at Pollsmoor Remand Detention Facility, where pre-trial detainees suffer from overcrowding, assaults by correctional staff, lack of exercise, malnutrition and rampant vermin infestation.
It was a breakthrough victory for the plaintiff in the case, Sonke Gender Justice, and for the several Sonke staffers who graduated from the yearlong LL.M. program at UCLA Law. “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 LL.M. ’15. “So it’s a big landmark.”
UCLA Law’s LL.M. program offers a one-year postgraduate degree to students who are already attorneys and who often have significant international legal experience. Now in its sixth year, the UCLA Law-Sonke Health & Human Rights Fellowship has brought 11 lawyers from South Africa and neighboring countries to pursue an LL.M. and specialize in public interest law. The school provides a full scholarship, and a grant from the Ford Foundation covers travel and living expenses. In exchange, students agree to work for a year at Sonke, a Cape Town-based NGO that addresses issues including prisoners’ rights, labor abuses, HIV/AIDS prevention and domestic violence. Sonke means “all together” in the Nguni language that is widely spoken in the region.
In her current work as Sonke’s national prisons specialist, Nevin has drawn attention to the deplorable circumstances prisoners face in Pollsmoor, often because they cannot afford to pay the equivalent of $4 for bail. The case before the Western Cape Division of the High Court of South Africa is part of a broader effort at Sonke to hold the government accountable for human rights abuses and to influence public opinion.
“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 to 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 L. 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 public interest lawyers are few. Its innovative structure also counters the all-too common problem of “brain drain,” whereby the nation’s brightest minds go away to school and then stay abroad rather than return home to make a difference, says Emily Nagisa Keehn ’10, an American who is now an associate director of Harvard’s Human Rights Program.
Keehn helped develop the fellowship after she got 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.
One such lawyer is Thabang Pooe LL.M. ’16, who grew up in a rural village called Kgabalatsane and journeyed to the city of Pretoria for school each day, starting before dawn. 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 at Sonke, Pooe engaged in advocacy for dozens of gold miners who have an incurable lung disease called silicosis and are involved in a class action against 32 companies. Sonke is helping in the case, the biggest of its kind ever in South Africa, which seeks compensation for workers’ health care costs and lost wages related to the illness. (At right, Pooe protests for the miners at a Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town.)
Pooe says the UCLA Law-Sonke Fellowship helped her become a more innovative advocate, and classes in the school’s Critical Race Studies program 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.
Soon, more UCLA Law alumni will join Sonke’s ranks. Nabeelah Mia is one of two Sonke Fellows in the UCLA Law LL.M. Class of 2017. A corporate lawyer in Cape Town before coming to UCLA Law, she has jumped into projects involving the school’s International Human Rights Clinic and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Racism and Xenophobia. Mia says that she is preparing to pursue prison reform work 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,” she 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.”