People

Professionally, this trip to South Africa has left me absolutely confused about what I want to do with myself and my career (other than move next to Austin, that is). I spend all morning sitting in continuing legal education classes talking about the South African constitutional history, post-apartheid Constitution, and all of the landmark cases interpreting that new (and “final,” as the South Africans call it) Constitution. The legal-nerd part of me is waaaay more excited than a kid at Christmas – it has all of my wheels turning and makes me reflect on what has happened, in comparison, in United States constitutional history. I love it and it makes me want to go back into academia.

But then every afternoon, we go on amazing field trips around Johannesburg to places and organizations that put me in touch with the human side of South Africa’s Constitution. I have watched videos of children as young as eight protesting apartheid and being essentially executed in the streets. I have spoken with advocates for the rights of South Africans living with HIV to receive their anti-viral medication. I’ve met with groups who are trying to enforce the Constitutional Court’s mandate that the government provide textbooks to children in rural schools. And many more… I love this as well and it makes me want to go back into international development.

As confusing as this trip has been for me, the one thing that I am 100% sure about is how much I’ve enjoyed the people on this trip. I live with the “big kids” in a little B&B in the Melville neighborhood of Johannesburg. We call ourselves that because we’re all a bit older and have a bit more work experience than the early-20-something law students who are also on this trip (OK, maybe a lot more). The oldest of our crew has been in practice for over 30 years and works at one of the largest firms in Western Washington. Another guy is practicing war crimes defense in Uganda and is currently representing Thomas Kwoyelo, who was kidnapped by Joseph Kony at age 13 and forced into the LRA. We have a paralegal, a tech expert, a real estate guru, and a woman who has worked in Federal court for over 15 years.

We have wine nights and do blind tastings of the South African wines we’ve purchased from (literally) the corner grocery a block away (one fellow joked about doing a bar hop like the law students, and one lady responded we should probably make it a bar crawl because one drink would be the end of most of us). We have systematically scoped out all of the coffee places on campus and flock to our favorite in one large group during our mid-morning break. When one lady came down with a flu-bug, everyone showered her with assorted medications and remedies. We went out to dinner and brought her home some soup from the restaurant, so she wouldn’t have to take her medication on an empty stomach. We make sure to save seats for each other and make sure that we’ve all made it onto the bus.

Every day at lunch, all the attorneys get to have lunch with the professors from my old law school. They are all so different, but have so much knowledge and experience. And, even better, they love to have thought-provoking discussions and do so in a way that makes me forget I’m actually a former student. One professor has done work for the United Nations refugee agency and is now teaching immigration and international arbitration. He’s an expert on constitutional-based countries, but we both discovered today that South Africa’s Constitution is the only one enforceable against all individuals and organizations (not just the government, as it is in the United States). OK, so from a non-legal point of view, this sounds really dry. But for us, this was like discovering an entirely new world…literally! This discovery opens up an entirely new body of constitutional law and procedure, and we spent the entire walk to lunch flushing out the complexities of that provision.

Last night, our entire group had dinner with former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, who was the first Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court and was also Nelson Mandela’s defense attorney. I sat next to him all through dinner and just soaked up everything he said. He struck me as not just a brilliant legal mind, but also a very considerate human being. I made a point of asking him, when he looks back on his life and not just his legal life, what was he most proud of. His answer – “I make it a point of never looking back.” He smiled at me as he said it, but his words hit me right in the chest. Of course he doesn’t look back – how could he after everything he and his country have been through. It would have been impossible for him to continue to push forward if he wasn’t able to let go of things like Mandela being sentenced to life in prison, losing the battles against the implementation of apartheid laws, and seeing the harm caused to so many for so long. I took one photo of Justice Chaskalson, but really no photo can capture what it was like to sit where I sat last night.

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