The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa
South Africa


South Africa has the most highly developed non-governmental sector in the whole continent, with apparently more than 50,000 NGOs in total. Although we did not try to estimate how many of these might be described as human rights organizations, the answer would probably be more than a hundred. The largest of these, Lawyers for Human Rights, has more than 130 paid staff. The Legal Resources Centre has nearly as many. Our visit to South Africa took place almost on the eve of the first democratic elections in the country's history. Throughout the entire trip we were undecided as to whether this was a very good or a very bad moment to conduct a mission like ours. In one sense, being on this historical cusp gave us an extraordinary vantage point, both looking back at the rich history of the human rights community in South Africa and looking forward to the new tasks facing it under a democratic system. However, while we were in the country, the very future of the elections was in question. There were daily negotiations as to whether the right-wing Freedom Alliance would take part in the poll or launch a campaign of violent disruption. It seemed almost certain that the Inkatha Freedom Party in Natal would boycott the election and intimidate hundreds of thousands of Zulus into following its line. Although a vote would certainly go ahead on 27-28 April and an ANC-led government seemed the inevitable outcome, all other events seemed uncertain. Human rights groups primarily engaged in monitoring political violence found it difficult to plan far beyond the next three months.

The history of South Africa under apartheid is well known, yet the problems of political violence which have bedevilled the country since the mid-1980s are less well understood. In the outside world two assumptions are often made about the violence which are both profoundly incorrect. First, it is assumed that the violence is primarily "tribal" or "ethnic" in character. Secondly, the violence is seen by many as being somehow a necessary, if unfortunate, concomitant of political transition which will fade away when the apartheid system is finally swept away and a non-racial government is in power. A correct understanding of these issues has a bearing both on the future activities of South African human rights organizations and on the continuing support that they require from the international community.

"Township violence" erupted in the mid-1980s in the course of the most significant popular uprising since the Soweto events of 1976. To some extent this violence was between different factions of the liberation movement itself--the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front and AZAPO, which was heir to the black consciousness tradition. Primarily, however, the violence arose because of state backing for right-wing black organizations--generally known during that period as vigilantes--either within the townships or aligned to the governments of the black homelands. The violence between "comrades" and "vigilantes" occurred in many areas of the country--Natal, both the Eastern and Western Capes and the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) region. In none of them did it have a significant ethnic dimension.

In most of the country, state repression quelled the township uprising and political violence subsided as a result. The area where it continued unabated from about 1985 onwards was Natal. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the Kwa Zulu homeland and leader of the Inkatha "cultural movement", used the resources of the homeland exchequer--as well as secret military training from the South African Defence Force--to prepare his supporters for a bloody war against the UDF/ANC in Natal. Two points must be underlined. First, until recent months Buthelezi, who is after all a political functionary of the South African state, waged his war against the ANC with the active support and encouragement of the government in Pretoria. The "Frankenstein's monster" metaphor tends to be overused in these situations, but as Buthelezi threatens to wreck the 27 April elections in Natal, President de Klerk may be ruefully reflecting on its accuracy. Secondly, all protagonists in the violence in Natal are Zulus. Current opinion polls suggest that the ANC, not the IFP, is the largest party among Zulus. Not only does this show why ethnic explanations for the violence are inadequate, it also explains why Buthelezi, in alliance with the white right wing, simply cannot afford to participate in the forthcoming elections.

In 1990 violence erupted in the PWV region, where it has continued ever since, focused in recent months in the townships of the East Rand. Again, there is ample evidence of covert security force involvement in the violence, although, unlike Natal, there is an ethnic dimension. Much anti-ANC activity has emanated from the migrant workers' hostels which are to be found on the edge of most of the townships in PWV, the country's main mining region. As early as 1976 the uprooted migrant workers, many of them Zulus, were mobilized by the police against militant township youth.

Essentially what has taken place since the mid-1980s and, more particularly, since 1990--when the ANC was unbanned and the transitional process began--has been the "privatization" of state repression. In order to evade outside scrutiny the state has given covert support to surrogate repressive agencies, notably Inkatha. Thus state repression can be explained away as "ethnic violence", and human rights violations can be reconceptualized as "violence", with the implication that all parties to the conflict are equally culpable. This has had important implications for the work of human rights organizations, which have had to acquire new monitoring and investigative skills. These skills--along with the political lessons of the South African violence--could be very important in countries like Kenya, Zaire and increasingly Malawi, where the human rights movement faces a similar "privatization" of repression.

Several human rights activists interviewed were firmly of the view that there would be no significant reduction in political violence after the election of an ANC-dominated government. Primarily this is because the main perpetrators of the violence are the IFP. However, it is also because a significant element in the violence is the disenchantment and alienation of poor urban communities who feel that they have not benefited from the "new South Africa".

South African human rights organizations have enormous and perhaps incomparable experience in pursuing issues of social and economic deprivation from a rights perspective. The historical reason for this, clearly, is the institutionalized racism which denied people access to social and economic rights on the basis of skin colour. It continues to be reflected in the large amount of time which human rights organizations spend advising on issues such as pensions, labour rights and housing. This area of work also is likely to continue under the new government.

However, the new constitutional order will also throw up areas of work which pose new issues for South African human rights activists. The very existence of a constitutional Bill of Rights, for the first time, creates possibilities for new areas of campaigning and advocacy, in particular constitutional litigation. Although South Africa has a highly developed legal human rights sector, it still has much to learn in this area. Also, the Constitution creates new statutory mechanisms for human rights protection, notably a human rights commission. There is also an Ombudsman, which has been in existence for two years or so, but which, according to those we interviewed, has not so far been very effective. Another challenge for the human rights NGOs will be how to work with these statutory bodies.

Other institutions of state should also be expected to change under the new order. Most notably the police will be expected to undergo a transformation from a repressive agent of racial domination to a guardian of the entire community. The problem is that not only the police themselves, but the communities and human rights activists, have no experience of how such a non-repressive police force should behave. Thus the human rights organizations need exposure to democratic models of police behaviour in order to develop the standards to which they will hold the police accountable.

Finally, the rather delicate question of the current racial composition of the human rights community needs to be addressed. For strong historical reasons, human rights NGOs have tended to be dominated by those sections of society which were permitted the greatest political freedoms under apartheid--whites primarily, and, to a lesser extent, "coloureds" and Asians. This has left a strong imbalance, especially in the leading echelons of many human rights organizations. We had lengthy discussions with one organization--the Black Lawyers Association (BLA)--which is specifically committed to black advancement in the human rights sector. We believe that affirmative action is needed within human rights organizations, as well as in society at large. The BLA argues convincingly for the continued need for black organizations even within an ostensibly non-racial South Africa.


At a moment when it is impossible to predict political developments even a month ahead, it is particularly hazardous to try to envisage in what situation human rights organizations will find themselves in the years ahead. However, it is clearly necessary to try. Some of the South African organizations have thought deeply about their future (although others show little sign of having considered it). A number of factors bearing on the future of South African human rights NGOs seem fairly certain:

- The overall level of outside funding for human rights work will decrease, if not immediately, then certainly over the coming years. The high level of outside support was largely a product of the peculiar nature of apartheid. It is likely that donors will consider that the past level of support will no longer be necessary. The fact that some organizations seem to have secured adequate long-term funding does not alter the fact that there will be fewer overall resources.

- Some organizations will be weakened and may disappear altogether because of the call upon their leading personnel to assume positions in the new government.

The two previous factors are likely to lead to some reconfiguration of the human rights organizations, with a number of organizations either uniting or developing a more clearly defined division of labour (this latter process is already under way, especially among the legal organizations).

- The enactment of a constitutional Bill of Rights and the creation of statutory human rights mechanisms will open up a new field of work for NGOs, of which they have no experience and little knowledge. However, NGOs may have to play an important role in ensuring that these new mechanisms function properly.

- The issue of social and economic rights will be of central importance. Already a large part of the work of any organization doing advice work or litigation is taken up with issues such as land, housing, pension and labour rights. The anguished debate which takes place elsewhere about whether these are really "rights" seems irrelevant in South Africa. When people have been denied access to basic social and economic provisions for racial reasons, there is no question that correcting that imbalance--the "equality clause" in the Constitution--is an issue of human rights.

- Political violence will continue at some level after the elections. Most of the organizations directly engaged in monitoring the violence think it is likely to increase. The most extreme scenario, which is by no means improbable, is outright civil war in Natal.

However, the great imponderable is simply: how repressive will the new government be? The answer to this partly relates to the question of how great a security threat is posed by Inkatha and the white right wing. But there is also an important question of the ANC's subjective intentions. On this, there are conflicting signals. On the one hand, the Transitional Executive Council, dominated by the ANC and the National Party, has so far refused to repeal Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial. Many ANC supporters endorse this position. On the other hand, many others, including Kader Asmal, a law professor who is likely to hold a senior position in the new government, have rejected this reliance on the means of repression used by the old regime. Significantly perhaps, Asmal is also a strong advocate of establishing a truth commission and seeking some accountability for past human rights violations. However, that does not appear to be the majority view among the ANC leadership. South Africa, like Zimbabwe, may face the unedifying prospect of a new government unleashing the old racist security apparatus on its political opponents.

If the government takes a repressive line, the South African human rights movement will face its greatest crisis. The majority of people involved in the human rights organizations are sympathetic to the ANC; all are profoundly unsympathetic to the right wing. How they stand up for the rights of people whose political views they detest will be a test of the maturity and independence of the human rights organizations.

The investigation of the past is an issue of great significance both to ordinary South Africans and to some people in the human rights community, although it is a need which is being compromised by the ANC for the sake of political expediency. For many families in South Africa there is still a fundamental need to account for those who have "disappeared" or died in custody. A representative of one monitoring group asked in some detail about the possibility of training in techniques of forensic pathology, anthropology and archaeology for local personnel. It is likely that, as in Argentina, some sort of official blessing would be needed for an outside forensic team to enter the country to investigate burial sites, and train local people in the appropriate techniques.


The peculiar environment in which the South African human rights organizations have evolved has created a relatively well-trained cadre of activists. A highly repressive political situation has forced the organizations to be resourceful and inventive, while they have been well funded and have had the resources of a sophisticated "First World" type society to draw upon. However, there have also been enormous gaps in their education. A number of issues emerged as common needs for several organizations:

- Constitutional litigation: South African organizations have no experience of working with a justiciable bill of rights. All the legal organizations interviewed identified a major need to be developing litigation strategies to respond to this new situation.

- Work with statutory human rights bodies: Not many organizations identified working with the statutory human rights commission or the Ombudsman as a training need. However, it is clear that even those groups which have not thought about the new dispensation will have to adjust their work to accommodate the existence of governmental human rights enforcement mechanisms. They could learn from countries where such mechanisms are already in operation.

- International human rights standards and mechanisms: Some organizations consulted identified their ignorance of international human rights law and mechanisms as a major weakness. Others, it seemed to us, continue to think only in national terms and do not see South Africa as part of the UN or OAU human rights systems. There is clearly a need not only for training in the narrow sense, but also education about the relevance and applicability of international human rights law.

- Paralegal training: A number of organizations have highly developed training programmes for paralegal workers, yet others, especially the small monitoring groups, identified this as a significant need. Thus, although the training resources are clearly available locally, there is a need to match up the organizations to make sure that the training requirements are met.

- Police/investigative/forensic skills: A number of groups involved in monitoring identified training in investigative techniques as an important need. Even a well-established and effective group like the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression (IBIIR) has had to develop its own forensic techniques more or less from scratch, and said that it needs further training. However, the IBIIR has developed its own materials--standard reporting forms, pictures of guns, uniforms, etc.--which could be usefully shared with other organizations (not only in South Africa). The absence of skills in forensic pathology, anthropology and other techniques has already been identified.

- A related but broader question is the standard of investigation (and conduct) which is to be expected of the police. Not only do South African human rights organizations have no first-hand experience of how police should behave in a democratic society; generally, the NGOs, for all their inexperience, are actually better at carrying out investigations than the police. Future police training in South Africa should include an element of exposure to NGOs, in order that familiarity can be developed on both sides. However, the NGOs also need specific training in standards of democratic policing.

- Conflict resolution: A number of organizations mentioned this as an important dimension of their work in which they felt that they needed further training. Clearly good resources are available locally, including the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA) and the Vuleka Trust.

- Documentation: Monitoring organizations mentioned documentation techniques as a training need, but expressed some scepticism about the usefulness of the HURIDOCS-based training being provided by the Goldstone Institute. Among the more experienced groups there was also a recognition that the use of computer databases was both highly labour-intensive and not particularly useful.

- Management/administration: In general, South African human rights organizations have had to develop relatively sophisticated management structures, and administrative and financial techniques. Not surprisingly, a number of organizations, especially the smaller ones, continued to identify this as an area of need. There are a number of organizations locally, including the Human Awareness Programme in Johannesburg, which provide basic office and management training for NGOs.


With such a large non-governmental human rights sector, it was clear that there was no chance of seeing all active organizations in the space of two weeks. We decided not to spread ourselves too thinly, but to meet a cross-section of organizations doing different types of human rights work. We also felt it would be more useful to meet different branches of the same organization in the various centres we visited rather than simply to increase our total score of organizations contacted. We met with thirteen different organizations, often with a number of branches of the same one.

It must be stressed that the choice of organizations interviewed was deliberately selective, in order to ensure a range of organizations doing different types of work. The selection does not reflect any judgment on the value of the work of those consulted (or those not consulted).

Black Lawyers Association/Legal Education Centre


The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) was formally established in 1980 with the aim of increasing black access to the legal profession. Only about 700 out of 7,000 lawyers in South Africa are black. South Africa has a split legal profession, and there are fewer than 100 black advocates. The BLA is in large measure a training organization. Its central project is a Legal Education Centre. It also provides bursaries for trainee black lawyers and runs seven advice clinics. It employs ten people in the Johannesburg headquarters with about forty countrywide.

The Director of the BLA is currently seconded to the Independent Electoral Commission and, given the scarcity of black lawyers, it seems likely that the BLA, like the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), will find itself decimated by similar demands from the new post-election government.

Black Sash

Black Sash, dating from 1955, is the longest-standing South African human rights organization. It is a women's organization (although men can be associate members). While it does not aspire only to deal with "women's issues", it has a particularly valuable perspective on such questions. Although it began as an organization of white, liberal women, there is a clear consciousness among many members and staff of the need to outgrow those origins. Staff were interesting and informative about the particular practical problems of women working together across the racial divides, which, although they no longer exist in law, continue to govern the daily realities of life in South Africa.

Black Sash has a dual legal structure--on the one hand, a national network of nine advice centres, and on the other, a campaigning organization. All Black Sash staff we talked to stressed the interdependency of the two; in other words, the organization's campaigning priorities derive from the issues raised by clients at the advice centres.

Black Sash has 2,500 members and 40 staff. The organization is currently professionalizing its management structures, taking due account of the particular issues posed by a structure where paid staff are managed by volunteers. It sees its future role identifying and campaigning on outstanding human rights problems, which it feels well placed to do by virtue of its advice centre network.

Community Law Centre

The Community Law Centre in Durban was established in 1989 and is the nucleus of a network of mainly rural community centres, run by voluntary management committees and dispensing advice to a target area of about one million people. The Centre itself has a staff of 24. Human rights education is also an important component of the work, using a Zulu translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A large part of the Centre's work, in conjunction with the University of Natal, is training of paralegal workers. Suitable people in the communities are identified to train as paralegals. The selected candidates undergo training over a period of two years, during which time they also help develop the skills of the committees which run the community centres. The training programme is determined by the needs of the communities, as decided by their representatives. The Community Law Centre's task is to develop training aids and programmes to meet those needs.


Diakonia is a Durban-based ecumenical agency established in 1976, which links eight churches and one church organization. Most of its funding comes from overseas church organizations. Its initial aim was to "respond effectively to the massive problems caused by the apartheid system in this major South African urban area". Diakonia has some seventeen staff, organized into four teams: a Justice Network Team; a Reconstruction and Democracy Team; an Administrative Team; and the Director's Office. The latter includes the Peace Process Fieldworkers, who are involved in monitoring of violence and mediation. Diakonia runs a Community Resource Centre Programme, which has twenty-six staff in fourteen centres around the Durban area. These centres provide paralegal services, advice and voter education.

Freedom of Expression Institute

The Anti-Censorship Action Group and the Campaign for Open Media, two bodies campaigning on censorship and press freedom issues, merged in January 1994 to establish the Freedom of Expression (FEI) Institute.

FEI differs from most of the other organizations visited in that it is neither a legal nor a community-based organization but a small pressure group (with two employees). FEI is sponsored by media trade unions, editors and journalists. In its previous incarnations it ran effective campaigns, in particular for the establishment of an independent regulatory body for broadcasting.

A major focus now, which will require expansion and professionalization of the Institute, is to campaign for the repeal of many laws remaining on the statute books which restrict freedom of expression, as well as helping to foster genuine diversity among both printed and broadcast media.

Human Rights Commission

We met staff of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) at its national headquarters in Johannesburg and in the Western Cape. It also has regional offices in the Eastern Cape and Natal. HRC, which has been in existence since 1988, is a small organization with a staff of approximately 10. It is the successor to the banned Detainees Parents' Support Committee. Its National Director commented that it might need to change its name again, with the creation of a statutory human rights commission under the interim Constitution.

The work of the HRC is exclusively concerned with the documentation of political repression through regular weekly and monthly publications. As such it is in constant contact with other monitoring organizations for the exchange of information. It is a member of the Network of Independent Monitors (NIM).

HRC was established by a group of five founding organizations. It is governed by a Board of fourteen Commissioners who are elected annually and most of whom are themselves active in different human rights organizations. This background of human rights activism on the part of the Board has created a fairly harmonious working relationship in which the Board has expertise to offer, but does not interfere excessively with the activities of the staff.

Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression

The Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression (IBIIR) was established in 1989 as a response to attacks and death threats against leading anti-apartheid campaigners--notably Reverend Frank Chikane of the South African Council of Churches, who nearly died when his clothes were impregnated with organo-phosphate poison. In its early stages, it primarily investigated "hit squad" activities. The IBIIR played an important role in the Harms Commission in 1990, a judicial body set up to investigate allegations of state complicity in hit squad activity. It submitted a greater number of exhibits to the inquiry than did the police.

In mid-1990 the IBIIR's orientation changed with the eruption of political violence in the PWV region. Its role since then has been to investigate incidents of political violence, with much of its work oriented towards information gathering for attorneys in court cases and for investigations of the Goldstone Commission.

An important and interesting dimension of the IBIIR's work has been its training of members of local communities in basic investigative skills, including taking statements, photographing scenes of attack, securing evidence, identifying different security force units, weapons and vehicles. Often their forensic skills seem better developed than those of the police.

The IBIIR currently has five staff.

Institute for the Study of Public Violence (Goldstone Institute)

The Institute for the Study of Public Violence (ISPV) was set up in 1993 by the Commission of Inquiry into public violence chaired by Justice Richard Goldstone, which had itself been established under the 1991 Peace Agreement. The "Goldstone Institute" has three main functions: to assist the Commission in information gathering; to establish and service a database of information on violent conflict in South Africa; and to offer training, particularly in documentation methodology.

The ISPV, by virtue of its links with the Goldstone Commission, is not an NGO, although it aims to service human rights NGOs monitoring violence. Staff at the Institute noted that most South African NGOs do not have much experience in documentation techniques. They also stressed the need to switch from a "liberation mode to human rights mode"--this included training in international human rights standards and systems. They are planning intensive six-week internships for activists from the regions, starting in May 1994.

Lawyers for Human Rights

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) was established in 1980 to further the legal protection of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in South Africa. It is an association of lawyers, which elects a governing National Council. This, in turn, appoints a National Director and a directorate comprising some 130 staff in 14 regions throughout the country. In terms of staff this makes it the largest human rights NGO in South Africa.

LHR has projects or departments dealing with, among other things, litigation, human rights education, paralegal training, penal reform (including the death penalty) and law reform. The organization has clearly thought ahead about its future role and, in particular, its need to safeguard its independence from any political movement.

Legal Resources Centre

The Legal Resources Centre, a public interest law firm/NGO, was established in 1979 and has offices in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Grahamstown, employing some 130 staff. With its concentration on test case litigation, the LRC was in the past involved in vital cases concerning issues such as influx control and the state of emergency. Increasingly, the work of the LRC is focusing on social and economic rights, above all, land rights.

The LRC runs a fellowship programme for the training of candidate attorneys which aims to increase access to the legal profession by disadvantaged groups as well as increasing the experience and commitment of the legal profession to public interest law.

Media Monitoring Project

The Media Monitoring Project (MMP) was established in early 1993 (as the Broadcast Monitoring Project), with the aim of encouraging fairness and impartiality in the publicly-funded mass media. It monitors radio, television and print media, analysing the content, selection and manner of presentation of news and current affairs. It aims to "educate the broadcasting authorities, political parties and the public at large in the principles of Human Rights in communications especially as they affect the freedoms involved in the democratic process". Inevitably much of the MMP's monitoring and education has been directed towards coverage of the first non-racial elections.

The MMP, which is externally funded, operates from an office in Johannesburg with a small staff and team of monitors, mainly students, at a number of centres in the country. Overall policy is directed by an independent board of journalists, human rights activists and media specialists.

Peace Action

Peace Action is a recently formed organization based in the PWV region which is engaged in monitoring political violence and conciliation. It was formally constituted as an organization only last year, as an initiative of 29 human rights, lawyers and church bodies, among others. Its membership is drawn from the founding organizations, as well as from the communities it serves.

It has nine staff who monitor political violence (mainly in the East Rand), mediate disputes, train communities in monitoring and dispute resolution, and publish monthly and periodic reports on political violence. An important stated aim is to "portray the 'human face' of violence so that human suffering is not reduced to mere statistics".

Street Law

Street Law is a national organization based at the University of Natal, Durban, with regional offices in the Cape and Transvaal, and Coordinators at twenty-one universities throughout the country. The international Street Law movement originated in the United States and was introduced into South Africa in 1985. School teachers attend Street Law seminars at the universities and university law students go each week to schools, prisons and other centres in the community.

Street Law aims to provide citizens with information to help them use the law, change the law, and settle disputes without using violence. Information is imparted through role playing, including mock trials, and a series of simply written manuals making extensive use of cartoon strips and other illustrations.

- Olisa Agbakoba and Richard Carver

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