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Meet the woman championing free legal advice in Cape Town’s townships

“I am as strong as the volunteers I have with me”

- A morning spent with South Africa’s Projects Abroad Human Rights Project Manager - Maria  Mulindi

In 2016, more than 25 000 hours of free legal services were provided by the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO) in South Africa. This snapshot of the South African team’s work was recently showcased in Projects Abroad’s 2016 Global Impact Report. We sat down with attorney and project manager of the Human Rights Project, Maria Mulindi, to find out what drives her, why her strength lies in the volunteers that join her team and why free legal services are needed in Cape Town, South Africa.

Maria and her team prepare for volunteersThe work that you do in Cape Town, why do you focus so strongly on providing free legal aid to people that are underprivileged?

“When Projects Abroad was being set up in 1992, it was set up to help people who are underprivileged, or in need. So it wasn’t necessarily something that I brought. All I did was enhance the objective of what Projects Abroad had always been. When I began working for Projects Abroad, my team and I started doing needs assessments: do people from this area know their rights? Do they know where they can get help? In the poorer communities, people are taken advantage of by employers, lawyers, insurance sales companies, loan sharks or companies that give credit for example; there is that presumption that they won’t know where to go, that they won’t have someone to advise them or that they won’t have someone to help them. That’s how it became our focus to set up a legal clinic in the township area where we go, or wherever we can be accepted.”

How many legal clinics do you have currently?

“We have three: in the townships Mitchells Plain, Lavender Hill and Vrygrond.”

What are the main cases you deal with in these three communities?

“A lot of the cases that you’ll get from Lavender Hill will be about divorce, maintenance or are domestic violence related. A lot of the cases you get from Vrygrond are property related and in Mitchells Plain, it just varies – you never know what to expect. In all these communities you’ll find, at least in one out of three cases that you are handling, the main issue is that there is substance abuse in the background somewhere.”

Working with a client in Cape Town, South AfricaWhy is there a need in the country for clinics of this kind?

“When you work in human rights in South Africa, you become very aware of the social inequality. You also come to understand the after effects of apartheid; how separation came about because of the Group Areas Act and how people were divided in terms of race. You come to understand that it might be post-apartheid; however, the life that was pre-1994 is still in existence and therefore people are still put in a state of need. A lot of the time people feel like they don’t have an arm with which to fight with. There are housing problems. And because of substance abuse, things like domestic violence become rife in the townships. The after effects of apartheid have not actually been dealt with.”

What do you enjoy best about your work?

“I believe that I’m called to go and assist the needy, the poor. The aspect of going in and actually rendering assistance to people who would otherwise not be able to get it… that makes my job worthwhile for me. I also love the aspect of mentoring, training and teaching volunteers.”

What is the hardest part of your job?

“Sometimes you feel like you have to beg people to do their job, at least with the third parties that you’re interacting with on behalf of the client. You feel like; why do I have to back you into a corner, for you to do what you’re supposed to do, yet you’re being paid, with taxpayer’s money. That can be frustrating.”

Legal clinic in session in Mitchells Plain, Cape TownHow much are volunteers needed in the South African Human Rights office?

“A whole lot! I am as strong as the volunteers I have with me. If they don’t put their best foot forward, it affects what we’re actually able to do. We do rely on volunteers and the more volunteers we have, the better. The longer [the volunteers stay] the better.”   

What is your long term vision for the clinics?

“With every year, we’ve kept growing and testing our own boundaries. For example, before in divorce cases, we would just help people get the summons, fill in the forms, and then they’d have to figure out the rest of the way. Now we are actually helping people up until a point we get to trial. I hope we can keep growing.”

Fact box on Maria:

Maria Mulindi was born in Kenya, but has lived in South Africa since 2003 when her father relocated the family for his work as an expatriate lecturer in law, at the University of Fort Hare. Maria and her siblings completed their schooling and university education in South Africa. “It had always been in my heart to study law; I had actually done a year of law back in Kenya and then I came here and I started the degree from scratch,” says Maria. Her father’s work with the United Nations, his travels and her grandfather’s work as a magistrate in postcolonial Kenya, had an influence on her decision to study law. Maria has nine siblings; three of her nine siblings are also in the field of law. She has been working with Projects Abroad for six years.

Find out how you can contribute to our Human Rights Project in South Africa or take a look at some of our other Law & Human Rights placements around the world.

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