Tuesday, 31 January 2012


“Access” has become the most commonly used word in the Durban Lawyers for Human Rights office.  My guess would be that it is also regularly used in other LHR offices as well as other refugee and human rights organizations throughout South Africa.

The South African asylum process mandates that an asylum seeker obtain a border transit permit (also known as a Section 23 permit) from the border, which is valid for 14 days.  This means that an asylum seeker subsequently has 14 days to approach a Refugee Reception Office, where he or she can submit an asylum application. 

The problem is that most asylum seekers who enter South Africa do so illegally.  They are either hiding in trucks while being smuggled in by human traffickers or finding ways to cross the electric fences at the border.  One of my recent clients described how there is a portion of the fence where a hole has been dug underneath it and asylum seekers can crawl through. 

Recent reports from border towns indicate that authorities, including the South African forces are blindly turning refugees away before they have the opportunity to claim asylum.  This is of course not uncommon, as in many developed countries, including Canada, border services agents stand at the gate and check passports before people have the opportunity to disembark an airplane.  Yet, with South Africa being the highest recipient of refugees and asylum seekers in the world, there seems to be a lot at stake. 

After entering the country most asylum seekers eventually approach a Refugee Reception Office to apply for asylum.  The problem is that when they do, they rarely have a border transit permit.  Authorities have been using this as a reason to refuse access to the asylum process and send people away.  In fact, people are being told to return back to the border to get a border transit permit.  What is interesting, however, is that the law does not actually require an asylum seeker to have this permit in order to apply for asylum.

This situation is further exacerbated by the Department of Home Affair’s recent refusal to issue border transit permits at some of the busiest ports of entry altogether.  It appears that this manoeuvre is part of an overall long-term strategy to move all refugee services to the country’s borders that has also included the closure of the Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth Refugee Reception Offices.  The Johannesburg office closed in May 2011 after local businesses complained about the increase of refugees in the area.  The closure of the Port Elizabeth office is still being disputed in court. 

In a public statement Amnesty International has expressed its concern that recent developments “would likely result in the dismissal of meritorious claims to international protection, in violation of South Africa’s legal obligations under international and domestic refugee law.  In turn, refugees would be denied their rights and exposed to real risk of persecution and other forms of serious harm.”

But while the Department of Home Affairs is desperately trying to deal with the mass influx of asylum seekers into South Africa and human rights organizations are trying to ensure that their rights are protected, those of us actually working on the ground often feel like we are fighting a losing battle.  Though we try to brainstorm ways of addressing the problem, with every client who enters our office claiming they have been turned away by the Department of Home Affairs, it is becoming more and more difficult to remain optimistic.  One thing, however, is clear.  Access to the asylum process is the first step of making certain that people who have seen and experienced some horrible things in their lives and who have genuine refugee claims are protected from persecution, serious harm and even death.  And we at least owe them that much.

Pictures from Lawyers for Human Rights' website and Facebook page

Friday, 27 January 2012

Up Up and Away

Before Cesar went back to Canada, we decided that his trip to South Africa would not be complete without a visit to the Drakensbergs.  Ali had just returned from her "home for the holidays" visit to Canada and we were all keen to get away for the weekend.  We had been really eager to do the Canopy Tours in the Champagne Valley of the Drakensbergs.  So we figured a weekend of ziplining and hiking was in order.

 We drove up early on Saturday morning to make it just in time for the 10am canopy tour. 

The tour included twelve ziplines through the Grotto forest.  The website boasted that the experience will "take your breath away" and it kind of did.  The scenery was absolutely beautiful.  From the minute we walked onto the first platform we felt like we were in a rainforest, complete with exotic birds, magnificent waterfalls and breathtaking cliffs.

We were all initially a bit nervous, but we pretty quickly got the "hang" of things. 

The experience was absolutely incredible and exhilarating.  We felt like we were flying and it was amazing.  There is definitely something to be said about being able to experience nature this way.

After a quick lunch we decided to go for a hike near the Monks Cowl, the mountain which lies between Champagne Castle and Cathedral Peak.  Apparently it gets its name from its distinct shape of a monk's hood.  Personally I think some people have way too much imagination.

The hike was fantastic.  We could see dark clouds gathering in the distance and the distinct sounds of thunder over the peaks.  Yet the sun was still shining and the weather was quite warm.

There was all sorts of interesting wildlife around us that Cesar kept on pointing out.

The hike took us to one of the most majestic spots I have ever been.

After spending the night in thatched rondavels near the mountains, we woke up refreshed and ready for another day of hiking.  We decide to hike up to the San rock paintings near the Giant's Castle.  We got instructions from the owner of the lodge as to the quickest and most direct route.  Little did we know that the quickest and most direct route was a gravel road that although only 40km long took us close to an hour and a half to drive on.  Surprise!

Giant's Castle is a peak in the central Drakensbergs.  It gets its name from the outline of the peaks and escarpment that combine to resemble the profile of a sleeping giant.  As I said, too much imagination :) As we got closer we could hear the loud rumbling of the clouds in the distance.  The thunder progressively got louder and louder.  Soon after we began our hike, giant droplets of water began to fall.  Though we were soaked by the time we got to the caves, there was something incredible about hiking in the rain with the loud thunder nearby.  The San rock art was also quite impressive.

Yet another great weekend for the books (or the blog in this case)!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Happy New Year Cape Town!!!

To celebrate the arrival of 2012 Cesar and I flew to Cape Town.  A number of the other CBA interns were planning to be there as well, so we knew we would have a great time!

The first thing on our "To Do" list was a visit to Robben Island, notorious as the site where many political prisoners were kept for decades during apartheid including President Nelson Mandela.  Joseph had booked us on the 8am ferry and so we had to do a mini-jog through the V&A Waterfront to get there on time. 

Gloria, Joseph and I on the ferryboat to Robben Island

Our visit to Robben Island was a very interesting experience.  As soon as the ferry docked, the entire group of tourists was escorted onto a tour bus that took us around the island.  The tour guide explained some of the history and showed us some of the more significant sites, including the lime quarry where the inmates would spend many hours each day working.  There was, however, an older hipster guy who was part of our tour group, who felt the need to add a comment after every single thing the tour guide said in a very creepy voice, including "OOOH!", "AAAH!", "LOVELY!" and "SHAME!".  Oh, and a random awkward slow clap at one point...  (I certainly hope Joseph writes a blog about this!)

The bus tour finished at the high security prison where the political prisoners were kept.  Our guide showing us around the prison itself was a gentleman who had previously been an inmate there.    We had the opportunity to see Nelson Mandela's cell and hear a bit about what the lives of many of the prisoners were like during their stay on Robben Island.  Luckily commentary-man had calmed down a bit by this point.   The overall experience was a bit uncomfortable, though it felt slightly rushed.  It almost felt like something was missing, and I am still not sure what that was...

That afternoon Cesar and I decided to hike up to the top of Table Mountain, the majestic mountain overlooking Cape Town.  I must say that although the climb up takes only about 80 minutes it is not an easy one, even for people who are somewhat fit.  It is basically like climbing steep stairs pretty much the entire way up.

It was completely worth it though!  The view from the top was absolutely spectacular!

To reward ourselves for our hard work that evening Cesar and I had a romantic dinner at Mama Africa - a traditional African restaurant on Long Street.  Though we did not have a reservation and the restaurant was fully booked, the manager figured out a way to find a us a table.  The atmosphere at Mama Africa was wonderful complete with a beautiful decor and a live African band.  I ordered a springbok stake and Cesar had an ostrich stake (adventurous eh?).  (By the way I had no idea that ostrich is red meat.)  The food was delicious and we had an amazing time!

The next day, December 31, we went on a wine tour.  What better way to get yourself ready for the new year's eve celebrations than to spend the entire day drinking (I mean wine-tasting) South African wine in the Western Cape?  This is by the way my favourite thing we did in Cape Town!  Our group included myself, Cesar, Joseph, Gloria, Sarah and Till.  Throughout the day we visited four different wineries, starting with Villiera - a champagne farm.

Joseph and Gloria agreed that the champagne was of very high quality.

So we made sure to buy enough for the new year's eve celebrations.

The second winery we visited was Tokara, a wine and olive producing farm near Stellenbosch.  The area was spectacular (and the wine and olives were pretty good too)!

By 1pm we were happy, loud, carefree, and hungry!  So, we stopped at a lovely little restaurant for lunch.  Most of us ordered bobotie (pronounced boboti), a traditional cape malay dish.

After lunch we were energized and ready for more drinking, I mean wine-tasting!  The next farm we visited was the Solms-Delta Wine Estate.  The winery was beautiful and in fact our guide had booked it as the venue for her upcoming wedding.   Oh and I should mention that one of the wines we tried was called Cape Jazz Shiraz, which we all agreed is one of the best wine names ever.

The final winery we went to was the Fairview wine and cheese estate.  Need I say more.  Well I guess I should.  The wine was great and we ate a lot of cheese!  Oh and here is something I learned.  I have been drinking a lot of pinotage since I have been in South Africa and have been greatly enjoying it.  What I did not know was that the pinotage is a uniquely South African red wine created by the first Professor of Viticulture at Stellenbosch University in the 1920s by mixing two different grapes.

We arrived back in Cape Town just in time for new year's eve.  We all got together for dinner in Joseph and co.'s suite and had great Ethiopian food.  At around 10:30pm we headed for the V&A Waterfront to await the arrival of 2012.  There was already a huge crowd of people watching the concert, which was taking place there.  We decided to go onto one of the wooden docks by the water. 

As 12 o'clock rolled around there was a bit of confusion.  There was no big clock annoucing the time or a countdown and then all of a sudden it was midnight and there were fireworks.  Oh well, TIA I guess!  We popped our champagne bottle on the dock at the waterfront in Cape Town and welcomed the new year! 


After a couple of parties and a lot of dancing we returned back to our respective hotels at around 5 o'clock in the morning, just in time to see the first sunrise of 2012.

"Happy New Year, Happy New Year,
Family, friends and colleagues, too.
May this new year be your best yet,
Happiness the whole year through.
Let’s all join to lift our glasses
In a toast to everyone.
To the old year now behind us,
To the new year, just begun."


Friday, 6 January 2012

And There Won't Be Snow in Africa This Christmas Time

Celebrating Christmas in South Africa was definitely an interesting experience.  Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that it was summertime, that there was no snow and that there would technically be no way for Santa's sleigh to arrive.  Including me!

I must admit Ali and I had put up our Christmas tree way back in November.  This is, of course, mainly my fault, though secretly I think Ali was encouraging me the whole way through.  Both of us could not wait for Christmas to arrive for various reasons - she would be going to home to celebrate with her family and I would be spending it with Cesar.  So surely if we put up the Christmas tree, Christmas would come faster!

I quickly got put in charge of organizing our office Christmas party back in October.  The restaurant we ended up choosing is called Cape Town Fish Market and is right on the beach, with its patio overlooking the ocean.

Ali, myself and Sherylle

We were encouraged to bring our 'plus one' and as I could not choose between Ali and Cesar, I brought them both.  We had a wonderful time, complete with Christmas crackers, good food and great company.

Christmas Eve was a bit of an emotional time for me.  My family and I are extremely close and we have very specific Christmas Eve traditions that I was trying really hard to follow.  I must say that was one of those moments during my stay here that was really tough.  Though I had explicitly told my friends and family not to send me anything through Cesar, they had all of course sent something.  And I felt so grateful that they did.  It made opening the presents so exciting and special! 

Christmas Day was also amazing.  When we woke up and looked out the window there was not a cloud in the sky.  So we thought, "What better way to spend Christmas morning than on the beach?"

We went for brunch at Mugg & Bean and then spent a couple of hours enjoying the sunshine and the ocean.  As I always say, "Who needs snow, if you have sand!" Actually I just started saying that. Just now.

We actually had the honour of being invited to celebrate Christmas with Willene and Dave and their family.  Willene is a colleague of Ali's at the Legal Resources Centre and is absolutely wonderful.  She has become a really good friend and I was looking forward to the opportunity to meet her family.  Willene and Dave have a beautiful house in Kloof which is about a twenty minute drive from Durban central.  Their house is located on the side of a hill with their patio overlooking a magnificent valley. 

We had a wonderful time, complete with great food, beautiful weather and amazing people.  There was even some Afrikaans dancing involved, which was wonderful to watch.

We also had the honour of being invited to Sherylle's house for Boxing Day for a braai.  Sherylle's family is so much fun and we had a great time.  Her mom's cooking is amazing (although I am not that good at eating spicy food I loved it) and her husband is a master braaier (I don't even think that is a word, but it should be!).  There was a lot of dancing involved and Cesar and I even learned how to kwaito (which wikipedia says "is a music genre that emerged in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the 1990s. It is a variant of house music featuring the use of African sounds and samples.").

Thank you everyone for making my Christmas away from home so wonderful and special!!!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

African Roadblocks

After the shark madness we headed north towards Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve.  The plan was to spend one night in Hluhluwe which is the northern part of the park and two nights in Imfolozi, which is in the south.  I had previously visited Hluhluwe in October (which perhaps you know if you have read my October blog), but this was Cesar's first time on a safari, so it was really exciting!

As we entered the park the first thing we encountered was a whole group of baboons on the road, including little baby baboons holding on to their moms.

After we checked in at the Hilltop Camp and signed up for a morning guided drive, we set out to explore the park.  We drove for a while without seeing anything, which I am sure was a bit of a disappointment for Cesar, though he denies it.  It wasn't until sunset that we ran into a group of rhinos peacefully eating on the side of the road.

After we made our way back to the Hilltop camp, Cesar made a braai and we had a nice dinner outside.  The next morning we woke up bright and early at 4:30am for our morning drive.  As we set out the sun was just rising.  The scenery was magnificent.

 We saw quite a number of animals including zebras, giraffes, elephants, impalas, warthogs and buffalo, though the best was the rhino roadblock we encountered.  In fact, during our stay at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi we encountered many more roadblocks, but I will discuss those a little later.

 I even got to meet a family of warthogs by the front gate of the park, as our guide was setting up our breakfast picnic.

After our drive it was time to pack up and leave our temporary home at the Hilltop Camp.

As we drove from Hluhluwe south into Imfolozi, we notice that the terrain wasn't as mountainous and we could see a lot more animals. 

Noon was approaching and the air was getting hot.  We saw two elephants desperately trying to cool themselves off by taking baths and staying in the shade.

Other animals were also trying to stay out of the heat, such as this warthog who was sleeping in the mud.  Cesar called him Stefi :)

Our accommodation in the Mpila Camp in Imfolozi was very different than our hut in Hluhluwe.  It was a safari tent on stilts that actually had its own bathroom, kitchen and deck.  It was probably the most luxurious camping I have ever done.

Unlike Hilltop, the Mpila camp does not have a fence surrounding it.  So, many animals actually come by, including zebras, nyalas, impalas and warthogs.  However, that is the reason people are encouraged to stay within their premises after dark.  Animals such as hyena are known to come by and try to take your meat from the braai.   And so, despite the heat, we decided  to make a braai in the afternoon and have a light meal at night.

During our stay in Imfolozi we saw a ton of animals.  Our road was blocked on numerous occasions by zebras, impalas, buffalos and giraffes. 

Though nothing was as scary as the giant elephant that we just came upon.  Though he seemed to be shooing away the giraffe in the distance, he did not have a problem with us.  By the way, I don't understand why giraffes as such scaredy-cats.  They are huge and they don't have any predators but they seem to be more afraid than any other animal.

And let's not forget the time a black rhino charged at us.  Side note: black rhinos are pretty shy and so it is often really hard to see them, but they are also really aggressive.  Of course it took me awhile to realize that the rhino wasn't just moving out of the bushes to pose for the camera, but he was actually running towards the car.  It goes without saying that we had to step on the gas pretty quickly.

At night we did have various visitors, though nothing was as exciting as when a genet jumped up on our veranda fence right behind me.  At first we weren't sure whether it was a baby leopard or a regular cat (we were hoping it was the former), but thanks to Ali's animal book, we figured out its true identity.

I would also like to point out that I saw a hyena for the first time and I actually though it was quite cute.  Shame on you Lion King for making hyenas look so evil.

Cesar and I also signed up for a night drive that did not disappoint.  We saw a number of the nocturnal animals, including owls, hyenas and snakes, but the highlight was the lions we saw in the distance.  Our driver did not seem to mind taking the vehicle off the road and driving straight through the grass towards them.  In fact I thought he was more excited than us. The lion and lioness were not at all phased by our presence and were calmly drinking water (just like Simba and Nala when they were falling in love and Elton John was singing in the background).  On this occasion Elton John was not singing in the background.

Overall, Cesar and I had a fantastic time.  Throughout our stay one thing we noticed was that a lot of animals had babies, which was too cute!!!  So I'd like to leave you with some of the cutest pictures ever.