The courtroom is tense. The gallery above me is overflowing with concerned residents of the town where the 6-month old baby girl was murdered in her crib. Everyone is leaning anxiously over the railing, straining to hear the judge. Just a few feet from me stand the 5 accused: a young white woman named Dina Rodriguez, and four young black men. Beside me sit the mother of the murdered baby and her boyfriend, in matching pin-striped suits. I try to read their faces for an ounce of emotion, but after 16 months of trial their faces have become stone.
I am lucky to attend today's proceedings because Rodriguez's lawyer is giving his closing argument. He argues all day, with an hour break for lunch. As I walk out of the courthouse, photographers line up for shots of the family of the deceased. The media is all over this case. It's not every day that a white woman is accused of paying four young black men from a township to murder the child her ex-boyfriend had with another woman. This case cuts across the most controversial issues in South Africa today: race, money, gender, and power. A few weeks later, the judge takes two days to read his two hundred page opinion, finding Rodriguez and her 4 co-accused guilty.
When I decided to spend a semester working at a public interest law firm in Cape Town, South Africa, I didn't know quite what to expect. I applied for the externship because I have always been interested in the history of South Africa, democratic reform and human rights law in general. My goal was to contribute to and experience, in some small way, the relatively impressive progress the country is making to enact and enforce human rights legislation in a place where such rights were categorically denied by the previous government.
My experience was extremely rewarding. My work with the Women's Legal Centre and Legal Aid Board provided me a practical education in comparative international law, family law, and criminal law. With Legal Aid I visited various levels of court, from magistrate's court bail proceedings, juvenile court, and narcotics court, to regional court, to the Cape High Court where I observed appeals and watched the Rodriguez trial. I accompanied attorneys as they consulted with clients before trial, and even visited the local, notorious Pollsmoor Prison to meet with clients.
I also worked at the Women's Legal Centre (WLC), which takes the cases of individual women and uses them to advance women's rights across South Africa through constitutional, impact litigation. At WLC I researched international law for attorneys to include in their arguments. South Africa, since it is such a young democracy, invites its attorneys to cite laws and cases from other nations. I felt honored to advise WLC attorneys on how international law could bolster their arguments.
In addition to research, I also joined WLC attorneys in client consultations. Meeting the brave young women behind the cases I worked on was inspirational. The issues, such as rape, adoption, divorce, and domestic violence, came alive upon speaking to clients. One day I found myself offering tissues to a young woman my age, who was raped and impregnated by a close family friend, hid the pregnancy, and gave her son up for adoption. She faced the bleak reality that she might have to testify about the rape in court to prevent the father of the child from adopting him. Another client, beaten and abused for years, fatally stabbed her boyfriend during a heated argument. The Center wanted to argue battered woman's syndrome as part of her defense, thus strengthening the defense for women across South Africa. In a country with shocking domestic violence statistics, such a defense would serve women well.
Aside from my legal work, living in South Africa exposed me to many issues facing a new democracy. As a foreigner, I had friends spanning racial and class lines. Once I had a dinner party and sat on the sidelines to hear friends of different races respectfully debate whether affirmative action is effective and fair. Many people in South Africa are looking forward and trying to reconcile the past in order to improve the country's future. There is much to be done, but there are many passionate, positive people who wake up every day to work towards change. I feel fortunate to have spent four months of my life in their presence.