(featured photo of Lunga Siyo, LRC, and Mandisa Shandu, Ndifuna Ukwazi)
I am black-African, young and female, and working in the public interest sector. This is what it means to me:
It means that some of us are first generation graduates; we work with the added pressure of making money in order to financially support our families.
It means that sometimes we do not earn enough to sustain ourselves and our families and so many young, black-African lawyers end up leaving the public interest sector for jobs that they do not necessarily love, but that will make sure that they fulfil their obligations each month.
It means that we work in a sector that is not transformed enough: we see black-African lawyers within our organisations but they are not occupying senior positions.
It means that there has to be policies put in place, such as briefing policies, in order to hold organisations “accountable” for who they brief, or their failure to brief black counsel.
It means forming institutions such as the Black Workers Forum to “police” organisations when it comes to transformation….. 33 years after Democracy.
It means that there is a belief that young black lawyers are incapable of competently handling complicated matters or matters seen as falling within specialised areas of law.
It means that other black-African lawyers are afraid of putting their jobs on the line by briefing other black-African counsel because black-African counsel are “inexperienced and can’t take on matters probono”.
And on the burden of being both black-African and female: it means that your male counterparts are taken more seriously than you and that some clients will be more comfortable with their matters being handled by your male colleague.
But let us not forget the beauty of being a black-African lawyer:
As public interest organisations, the majority of our clients are black-Africans. This means that the majority of the work that we do is for our own people and for the betterment of our own people.
We are multi-lingual; we are able to communicate with our clients in a language that is their own. We understand the cultures and traditions of our clients.
We are a point of reference for clients. I have lost count of how many times I have been at court – going about my duties as a Candidate Attorney – and have been approached by members of the public, querying how to find a particular section of the court or how to fill in a domestic violence form. Our black skin means that we will understand better.
As a black-African child, we are taught that every elder is your mother/father or grandparent. For me this has meant that at every workshop or community consultations, I run to the aid of elderly people, making sure that they can get around with ease. My work as a black lawyer comes with a personal touch.
Lawyering whilst black…means that we have challenges; but we do our work anyway and we can understand the plight of our clients in a way that connects us to them.
Sindisiwe Mfeka – 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 Fellows here: http://berthafoundation.org/