Before coming to Cape Town, the word “activist” evoked specific images: those of people on the streets and on campuses, using their slogans and bodies as symbols of defiance and disruption of the status quo. Here, I’ve seen that form of activism a handful of times, and my reverence for that kind of perseverance and passion has not wavered. When I accompany Harsha, a candidate attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre, to the High Court, more often than not there are people sitting on the steps to the entrance in protest of unjust laws and decisions. A student protest called Fees Must Fall has gained popularity on college campuses across the country. During apartheid, people continued to protest racialist policy even when the police began regularly using force to suppress them. The activists on the ground risk their jobs and economic security, their lives, and their standings in the pursuit of equality and social justice. But I have learned that activism can take other forms, too.
Human rights lawyers are not required to march or chant or face the wrath of police. But they work long hours, work pro-bono, and work on the side of vulnerable women despite endless layers of oppression and discrimination in law and society that they must peel back.
The lawyers that surround us at the Women’s Legal Centre are activists. They sacrifice high-paying corporate or government jobs, and instead dedicate their lives to gaining rights for vulnerable women through legal services. This form of activism does not take place on the ground, but instead on the seventh floor of a building. It does not require chanting or signs, but it does require knowledgeable and qualified lawyers who are willing to help women in need, free of charge. Human rights lawyers are not required to march or chant or face the wrath of police. But they work long hours, work pro-bono, and work on the side of vulnerable women despite endless layers of oppression and discrimination in law and society that they must peel back. Both fight for systemic change. Both have the needs of vulnerable groups in mind at every turn.
When the other interns and I led an internal workshop on sex work at the WLC on Wednesday, the goal was to get everyone on the same page about which legal model of sex work that the WLC should endorse. Given the discourse on the topic at meetings we’ve sat in on with other non-governmental organizations, I expected the discussion at the workshop to focus on the benefits of the decriminalization of sex work, but it was far more nuanced than that. Where activists can remain rigid in their ideological stances, human rights lawyers must consider what is most feasible within the current legal, social, and political systems. The resolute stances of activist organizations are important in the hope and ideals that they symbolize for activists. Human rights lawyers must endorse whatever improves the safety of women, ASAP. Both groups are necessary in facilitating social change.
The activists I had in mind before I began my work at the WLC oftentimes sacrifice more than human rights lawyers. They probably face more hardships, they are possibly more frustrated, and they do it thanklessly. But human rights lawyers make sacrifices, too, and it is all done in the name of justice for the disadvantaged. Although some forms of activism may seem more honorable or effective than others, I believe it is that type of sacrifice which makes an activist.