The public still needs education on human rights

May 1st, 2024

Legal practitioner, Shirley Mlombo


In this month’s monthly feature we focus on Shirley Mlombo who was born in Mpumalanga, in a village called Chochocho. Ms Mlombo is a last born of four siblings. Her parents were not college/tertiary graduates, however, valued education. Ms Mlombo is the first graduate in her family. None of her siblings went to university. She attended primary school in Chochocho called Tsembanani Primary School. ‘Although the school was in a village, we received a good education, with the teachers invested in our education. In fact, growing up, most of the teachers’ children attended our school, including children of the Head Master,’ Ms Mlombo noted.

Ms Mlombo said she attended high school at Lowveld High School, a former Model C school and because of the foundation laid during primary schooling years, she did not struggle to adjust to the new school and environment and continued to do well in her studies. She proceeded to do an LLB at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) from 2007 to 2010, where she graduated with distinction. ‘I was fortunate to receive a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue my LLM at the University College London in 2013-2014, where I graduated with merit. I then proceeded to do a postgraduate diploma in Public Management at Wits from 2020-2021, where I graduated with distinction. I wanted to break the mould of black-letter thinking, which is typical of lawyers. I am currently pursuing my LLD degree at the University of Pretoria, one of my long-held dreams,’ Ms Mlobo added.


Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): Why did you choose to study law?

Shirley Mlbombo (SM): I really do not know. I verbalised the desire to be a lawyer when I was in grade 3, in response to a question from a teacher about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I have no memory of ever seeing a lawyer. There is no lawyer in my immediate or extended family. I do not know how the idea came about. However, I remember hearing my classmate laugh when I said I wanted to be a lawyer. This is because the word ‘lawyer’ sounds the same as the word ‘loya’ in the Swati language, which means a witch. So, my classmates thought I wanted to be a witch. Evidently, they also did not know what being a lawyer meant.


KR: What is your role at the South African Human Rights Commission?

SM: The South African Human Rights Commission (the Commission) is one of the institutions recognised in s 181 of the Constitution as institutions strengthening constitutional democracy. The specific role of the Commission within this framework is provided for in s 184 of the Constitution and is, namely, to promote respect for human rights and a culture of human rights; promote the protection, development and attainment of human rights; and monitor and assess the observance of human rights in South Africa. Section 184 of the Constitutional, therefore, gives rise to what we have come to refer to as the Commission’s three-fold mandate, namely its promotion, protection and monitoring mandate.

Provincial Offices of the Commission are the main operational arm of the Commission and are directly responsible for carrying out the Commission’s mandate. To this end, Provincial Offices are responsible for the processing of complaints of alleged human rights violations in the exercise of the Commission’s protection mandate. Provincial Offices process complaints by investigating complaints of alleged human rights violations. They can also resolve the complaints through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or litigate either in the name of the Commission or on behalf of a party. Provincial Offices are also responsible for the conduct of stakeholder engagements and educational programmes to educate and raise awareness on human rights issues. Moreover, they are responsible for monitoring various institutions, including health care facilities, correctional facilities, detention cells of South African Police Service, psychiatric wards, schools, and courts, among others, to assess and monitor the observance of human rights in those facilities.


KR: Do you think the public is well informed about the role and duties of the Commission?

SM: No. There are still too many pockets of communities who do not know about the Commission and the work it does.

There is, therefore, a need for more education about the work we do as a Commission. In the North West, we will be intensifying our outreach programmes this year. To this end, we will be visiting under-reached communities. We will also be reaching out to them through the medium of radio. We started our outreach program in March 2024.


KR: What are some of the cases that you deal with as the Commission on a daily basis in the North West Province?

SM: The Commission has a broad mandate insofar as human rights are concerned and therefore, competent to deal with all the rights in the Bill of Rights. However, in instances where we believe that other institutions can best address the complaints, we refer those complaints to the other institutions. The complaints we typically refer include labour relations complaints, as well as complaints relating to gender rights and the rights of detainees.

The top six complaints we received in the 2023/2024 financial year are:

  • Complaints relating to violation of the right to water as many communities in the North West either do not have any water or experience regular interruptions to their water supply and receive a supply of water that is not aesthetically pleasing due to discolouration.
  • Complaints relating to the violation of the right to decent sanitation, as many communities still use unsuitable sanitation, with some communities still using bucket toilets.
  • Complaints about sewage spillages onto the roads and people’s homes, in violation of the residents’ right to an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being. We also receive complaints about the lack of refuse collection, illegal dumping, and air pollution in mining communities, also in violation of the residents’ right to an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being.
  • Complaints of the violation of the right to education, with many parents indicating that their children were refused admission at schools due to discrimination, capacity issues and lack of documentation. Other parents complain of bullying of their children at school and suspension or dismissal of their children from schools unfairly and without due process.
  • Complaints relating to the right of housing. These complaints mainly relate to unfinished government subsidy houses, title deeds issues, evictions without a court order and people’s houses cracking due to mining activities or construction of roads. We typically address the eviction matter through litigation.
  • Complaints relating to the violation of the right to equality and dignity. Typically, complaints will raise allegations of hate speech and unfair discrimination on the grounds of race and sexual orientation. We address these complaints through ADR or Equality Court litigation in the main.


KR: What makes you passionate about human rights?

SM: I have always had a deep sense of justice growing up, as well as empathy and sympathy for the suffering and downtrodden. Human rights work is, therefore, an extension of who I am as a person. It gives me great personal fulfilment to provide redress to people who would otherwise not have had redress.


KR: South Africa is celebrating 30 years of human rights. Looking back, do you believe that in South Africa, human rights are promoted and protected?

SM: There have been gains, some misses, as well as regressions in the promotion and protection of human rights in South Africa. On the gains side, I can assert myself and my family as one of the biggest beneficiaries of our human rights dispensing. Because of our human rights framework, we were able to relocate from the village in which I grew up to a middle-class former coloured community, which provided my family better access to basic services and amenities. I was also able to register at a high school I would not have been allowed to study in, but for our human rights dispensation. These opportunities set me up for life as I was able to access one of the premier higher education institutions in South Africa and went on to work for one of the biggest and premier law firms in South Africa. Many bear such a testimony.

There have been some misses, however. Many black South Africans remain landless. Farm dwellers continue to be harassed, evicted and denied the use of the land they occupy, thereby rendering their tenure of the land insecure. Our basic education system remains inequitable, with many young people exiting the system with no real prospects of success as many cannot read, write or think critically at the level expected of them.

There have also been regressions, particularly in our race relations as a country and in the enjoyment of socio-economic rights, due to the governance crisis within local and provincial governments in the main.


KR: What is the role that the Commission will be playing in this year’s general elections?

SM: The Commission is one of the institutions that have been granted observer status. We will, therefore, be conducting election monitoring on the day of the election as well as in the lead-up to the elections.

Of course, the Commission will deal with any human rights violations emanating from the elections. The issues we will look out for include hate speech, violations of the right to freedom of expression and accessibility of stations to persons with disabilities.


Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2024 (May) DR 36.