Building trade union effectiveness through human rights and the law

The relationship between non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions is very important in that their joint impact on social and political issues can be very powerful when they work in sync. In the same light, when their joint agenda fails, it can be a setback for both parties.

Both NGOs and trade unions provide important assistance to the communities which they serve. They have more things in common than not, and the most important way they can contribute to democracy is through the improvement of civil society and ensuring that the dignity of those they serve is restored.

With that being said, it is important to note the circumstances under which NGOs and trade unions can co-operate, the various obstacles they may acquire and the conflicts of interests that may arise.

Trade unions have a long history and so do NGOs. It may seem that, due to globalisation, NGOs may have gained a wider scope and reach than trade unions and the impact of trade unions remains domestically focussed, despite the globalisation of the market space.

Trade unions have identified with the struggle of human rights since apartheid. We can see the rich history of activism through the growth of worker rights, but also as workers are now being recognised as part of society. In fighting for workers, trade unions have liberated those who were dependent on them.

In the early 2000s, trade unions became a key component of democracy as agents of social change but that role has since evolved, with the spotlight falling largely on NGOs. Trade unions have not been completely silent, and we see their stern presence in the courts and in key judgments that have shaped the labour market and labour law.

One thing we can be certain of is that trade unions will not be phased out any time soon. Despite the greater political influence, they still play a key role in the workplace and the market.

The status quo of trade unions after the Marikana massacre changed and led to the breakaway of members to form their own unions, such the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The aftermath of Marikana showed how workers had lost faith in trade unions because leaders focussed on the pursuit of political gains instead of the wellbeing of their representative workers. Through this distress of workers, we have seen a breakthrough in NGO interventions through having trade unions held accountable as representative bodies of workers and employers implementing effective suitable work standards.

In South Africa, it is not easy for an employee who is not part of a union to seek help outside the scope of options made available by legislation, that being the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and trade union structure. This means that it not easy for NGOs to assist workers to assert their rights unless all avenues have been exhausted. That means that the employee may be helpless to assert their rights, to a certain extent. This is where the cooperation of NGOs and trade unions is needed.

NGOs and trade unions should have worker rights at the heart of their work and cooperation between the two is the only way we can advance the landscape of worker’s rights. If they fail, they will fail to unshackle the restraints of migrant and casual labour and will not be able to overcome the violations of human rights that continue to occur; such as unfair dismissals and non-payment of benefits, worker exploitation.


Bathandwa Xhallie – 2017 Bertha Justice Fellow

The Annual Bertha Convening is supported by the Bertha Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support of the next generation of young human rights lawyers. Read more about the Bertha Foundation and Bertha Justice Fellows here:

Mining Affected Communities: We need more than on-paper Social and Labour Plans

(Photo: An informal settlement close to the Lonmin mine, where 34 people were killed when police opened fire on protesting mine workers)

Mining within communities is viewed as a conduit for further development of the community. It creates an expectation of an improved standard of living and gives the community a sense of hope for better and sustainable living. This hope is often hindered by the breakdown in communication with respect to the implementation and the sustainability of the perceived progression of development. Was the Marikana massacre not the perfect example of a fatal breakdown in communication between the miners, their union representatives and Lonmin?

In looking at the socio-economic situation of the clients that approach civil society on a daily basis with cries of injustice in their communities, the land beneath their feet is the wealthiest. As a result, most of the communities affected by mining are those with very little economic freedom. But, after the granting of the mining permit, there is often even less economic freedom and often dire consequences for communities.

To ascertain whether there is mineral deposit on a piece of land, an application must be made for a prospecting right. No two people can hold a prospecting right, mining right, mining permit or retention permit for the same mineral and land at the same time. Communities on land on which there is a land claim are therefore in a state of uncertainty about who owns the mineral rights. Could mine companies be capitalising on the chaos?

Let’s assume, in this instance, that all the necessary land acquisition processes and procedures have been meticulously complied with. In order to obtain a mining right in South Africa, you have to have complied with the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). The Social and Labour Plan (SLP) is an important document that the Department of Mineral Resources has to assess to establish the benefit that will extend to the community in granting the permit.

Being a legally binding document, the SLP ought to be enforceable in a community; yet why is it that graduates in rural communities in which there is mining activity cannot complete their in-service training with such a mine? Or, the local councillor has neither a seat nor a say in the meetings held by the mining company? Is this a lack of representation in a democratic country?

The community of Mahlabathini in KwaZulu Natal is currently affected by coal mining activity and a “smokescreen” SLP. The traditional authorities of the area have isolated the local councillor for political reasons, resulting in her having no knowledge of the decisions taken that affect her community. Community members that worked at the mine and have since been retrenched have not been given any severance packages. The Municipality has cut off the water supply in the community; yet the mine has adequate water supply to remain fully operational. The trucks driving to and from the mine have run over livestock and children, with no compensation to the bereaved families.

With a mining permit being rewenable every 5 years, we must wonder why this would be renewed when the community has not benefitted from the mining activity as per the SLP – and in fact, has suffered considerably.

A report by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) in March 2017 confirms that SLP’s are a requirement that is rarely enforced by mining companies. It is important to take cognisance of the fact that enforcement and accountability will not always lie with the same office. Budget may be allocated for the social-economic development of a community; however, community members give proxy to a representative who is their voice and is responsible for ensuring the upkeep of their communities’ best interests.

One cannot point a finger at the mining company alone, or the representatives of the community, for not being accountable where necessary. However, tension is bound to rise where there is no transparency. Accountability and transparency become fundamental in the socio-economic enforcement of rights in affected communities.

A more concerted effort and vigour by all the role-players is needed to question, challenge and call to book those in positions of power when decisions are made that affect communities.

The richness of the land has moved from below the feet the community to the hands of the decision-makers.

Nokukhanya Nkatha – ­2017 Bertha Justice Fellow

The Annual Bertha Convening is supported by the Bertha Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support of the next generation of young human rights lawyers. Read more about the Bertha Foundation and Bertha Justice Fellows here:

Être avocate, et noire

(Photo  Lunga Siyo, de l’organisation Legal Resource Centre, et Mandisa Shandu, de l’organisation et clinique juridique Ndifuna Ukwazi)

Je suis une jeune femme africaine, noire, et je travaille dans le secteur de l’intérêt public. Voici ce que cela signifie:

Ça veut dire que certain-e-s d’entre nous sommes des diplômé-e-s de première génération. Nous travaillons donc avec une pression supplémentaire : celle de gagner notre vie pour subvenir aux besoins financiers de nos familles respectives.

Ça veut dire que nous ne gagnons parfois pas assez pour subvenir à nos propres besoins, ni à ceux de nos familles. Résultat ? Une part si importante d’avocat-e-s africain-e-s noir-e-s finissent par abandonner le secteur de l’intérêt public pour reprendre un travail qui ne les passionne pas, mais qui garantira une rentrée d’argent suffisante par mois pour leur permettre de tenir leurs obligations.

Ça veut dire que nous travaillons dans un secteur qui n’a pas suffisamment progressé : les organisations comptent des avocat-e-s africain-e-s noir-e-s mais ils et elles n’occupent pas des postes à haute responsabilité.

Ça veut dire qu’il est grand temps d’avoir des politiques, d’instruction notamment, pour engager la responsabilité des organisations sur leurs pratiques d’attribution des affaires, en particulier si elles n’en confient pas aux avocat-e-s noir-e-s.

Ça veut dire qu’il faut encourager la création d’entités telles que le groupe Black Workers Forum (groupe militant de soutien aux travailleur-euse-s noir-e-s) pour contrôler les organisations dans la conduite du changement.

Ça veut dire qu’il existe cette idée que les jeunes avocat-e-s noir-e-s ne sont pas capables de gérer des affaires compliquées, ou des affaires relevant de domaines juridiques spécialisés.

Ça veut dire que d’autres avocat-e-s africain-e-s noir-e-s risquent de perdre leur travail en confiant des affaires à des avocat-e-s noir-e-s qui « n’ont pas d’expérience et ne savent pas s’engager sur des affaires à titre bénévole. »

Et sur le fait d’être non seulement africaine et noire, mais aussi une femme, ça veut dire que nos confrères masculins ont plus de crédibilité que nous et qu’il y a des client-e-s qui préfèrent que leur affaire soit entre les mains d’un avocat masculin.

Mais n’oublions pas la beauté que cela représente d’être des avocat-e-s africain-e-s et noir-e-s

Étant des défenseur-euse-s de l’intérêt public, la majorité de nos client-e-s sont des Africain-e-s noir-e-s, ce qui veut dire que la majeure partie du travail que nous menons est en faveur de notre propre peuple et pour l’amélioration du bien-être de celui-ci.

Nous parlons plusieurs langues et sommes ainsi capables de communiquer avec nos client-e-s dans leur propre langue. Nous comprenons leurs cultures et traditions.

Nous sommes un point de référence pour ces client-e-s. Je ne compte plus les fois où, lorsque je plaide au tribunal en tant qu’élève-avocate, les membres du public m’abordent pour me demander où se trouve telle ou telle salle du tribunal, ou comment compléter un formulaire de plainte pour violences conjugales. Notre peau noire signifie que nous comprenons mieux.

Nous, enfants africain-e-s, grandissons avec le principe que tout aîné est comme une mère, un père, ou un grand-parent. Au quotidien, pendant chaque atelier ou consultation communautaire auquel je participe, je me consacre au bien-être des plus âgé-e-s, assurant notamment qu’ils et elles peuvent se déplacer facilement. Mon travail en tant qu’avocate noire s’accompagne donc d’une dimension personnelle.

Ainsi, être avocate et noire implique en effet de nombreux obstacles. Mais malgré tout, nous accomplissons notre travail et nous comprenons et établissons une connexion avec nos client-e-s.

Sindisiwe Mfeka – Boursière Bertha Justice 2017

La Rencontre Bertha est assurée chaque année par la fondation « Bertha Foundation ». Nous tenons à remercier les équipes de la Fondation pour leur soutien à la nouvelle génération d’avocat-e-s défenseur-euse-s des droits humains. Plus d’informations (en anglais) sur la fondation « Bertha Foundation » ici :  


Reflections on Fellowship and Contesting the Constitution

Photo: Tshepo Madlingozi 

The fast pace of legal practice and constant demand on your faculties and capacity in the public interest sector is often a distraction from gaining perspective about our growth as young social justice lawyers. The Bertha convenings serve as important periods for pausing and stretching our minds.

The first year of the fellowship is a wonderful time of terror and optimism. A time of learning the ropes and mastering the tone of the profession. During your second year you are given the opportunity to take on more responsibility in a practice, and this added freedom is an essential part of understanding your own abilities, potential ethics and limitations. As the conclusion of the fellowship approaches and we make the transition to alumni, many of us grapple with the reality of legal practice, the lure of social justice by academia and reinventing our role in the social justice arena.

As young social justice lawyers we are in a unique position to begin to experiment with hybrid careers and opportunities. There is an overwhelming sense that a new path must be forged and exciting long-lost entrepreneurial inklings must be called upon going forward to continue to effect change. The South African Bertha convenings serve as an important pool of ideas from which the fellows can draw from in order to advance new ideas about social justice and our roles within this sector.

We were particularly challenged at this year’s convening titled, “Contesting Power, Privilege and the Constitution” as it was an opportunity to hear the voices we tend to usurp or minimise in the course of litigation. The convening also galvanised fellows and alumni to question the paradigms in which we operate as public interest lawyers in the pursuit of social justice.

We work in a context where South Africa’s dehumanising history still presents itself in our thinking around development and notions of social justice. When Tshepo Madlingozi, a jurisprudence lecturer at the University of Pretoria, asked us about our use of emancipatory tools, many of us came to realise that we had accepted many imposed norms as unassailable purely because we were in the business of doing good.

Madlingozi’s argument was that human rights and, necessarily, social justice are concepts rooted in ‘coloniality of being’. That is, “South Africa’s contemporary social justice sector’s ahistorical and colour-blind fetishisation of human rights, as part and parcel of the economy of recognition – incorporation – distribution, both conceals and entrenches this teleological whiteness.”[1]

This begs the question for us public interest lawyers, operating under the banner of social justice, of whether we are truly effecting change in a post-apartheid South Africa, or whether we unwittingly perpetuate the notion of dehumanising “othering”. In essence, what the convening required of us was to recognise the real struggle of those we purport to represent. It asked us to understand what it was to be poor, black, female identifying, LGBTIQ+, migrant, marginalised, landless, silenced and forgotten.

In as much as Madlingozi encouraged a shift toward the recognition and appropriation of a liberation project, our claim on the advancement of human rights is still framed by a colonial understanding of humanity and law. Thus, if we remain impervious to the paucity of human rights “speak”, we may lose legitimacy in the eyes of those who continue to suffer “dehumanisation and social death”[2]

What about the Constitution? As mentioned above, the theme of the convening envisioned contesting the Constitution. One of the issues that we grapple with in the South African context debate, is our unquestioning defence of the Constitution. On the ground, the lofty ideals in the Constitution scarcely equates to the rectification of injustice. The protection of ill-gotten gains (property) daily reminds the dispossessed, our clients, of their social deaths and social injustice.

What’s more is that civil society in South Africa, of which we are part of and partner with, has been venerated beyond reproach – thus the “liberation project”, as Madlingozi puts it, cannot take form in the face of ahistorical disarming discourse that it deems social justice. As we graduate from the fellowship we will continue to debate and challenge social justice which constitutes temporary relief for those with insecure title and “developing the normative an remedial apparatus for imposing duties on organs of State.”[3] We will also continue to question whether we, as public interest lawyers, can attain the humanising project within the framework of our Constitution.

Mpho Raboeane and Christine Grobler – ­2017 Bertha Justice Fellows

The Annual Bertha Convening is supported by the Bertha Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support of the next generation of young human rights lawyers. Read more about the Bertha Foundation and Bertha Justice Fellows here:

[1] T Madlingozi “Social Justice and Neo-Apartheid Constitutionalism”(2017) 28 Stell LR 137.

[2] Ibid at 139.

[3] S Liebenberg “Socio-economic rights beyond the public private law divide” in M Langford, J Dugard, B Cousins and T Madlingozi (eds) Socio-economic Rights in South Africa: Symbols or Substance?(2014) 63 64 as in T Madlingnozi “Social Justice and Neo-Apartheid Constitutionalism” 145.