Over the course of the reporting period, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) continued to fight for social justice through some of South Africa's highest courts, securing victories in respect of various challenges to unlawful urban evictions, finalising a precedent setting trial concerning torture in custodial settings, and more.
On 19 July 2022, LHR obtained an order in the Pretoria High Court instructing the Rand West City municipality to reconnect the electricity of our client. Our client was employed by Gold Fields South Deep Gold Mine (Gold Fields) and the branch secretary of the local trade union. Following a protected strike in 2018 he was dismissed, but charges were subsequently overturned at a CCMA arbitration hearing. Our client in the matter was living in a property owned by Gold Fields and was paying for electricity on a pre-paid basis supplied by the municipality. He was however disconnected without warning in May this year. What subsequently emerged was that Gold Fields had instructed the municipality to disconnect our client’s electricity and the municipality had failed to follow its own bylaws regarding disconnections. Importantly, this must include 14-days’ notice and an opportunity for the occupant to challenge the decision. Our client contacted LHR after municipal officials refused to re-connect him. LHR took up the case and after several letters Gold Fields conceded that they had no objection to the municipality reconnecting our client’s electricity. However, despite requests, the municipality failed to do this. This left LHR with no option but to seek an urgent court order for our client reconnection which LHR successfully obtained.
LHR also successfully assisted a number of clients during the reporting period in unlawful detention matters. One of these matters involved six asylum seekers who were unlawfully detained by the South African Police Service members in Durban who suspected that their asylum documents were fraudulent. LHR represented the group in court and secured their release after verifying the authenticity of their documents. The matter is an example of the unlawful manner in which state officials still arbitrarily deprive individuals of their liberty necessitating our continuous monitoring of detention facilities across the country.
On 14 June 2022, the Johannesburg Central Magistrate’s Court dismissed criminal charges of public violence against seven workers represented by LHR. The workers, who are former Pikitup employees, were exercising their right to protest in relation to a labour dispute when they were arrested on 7 March 2018. On 1 February 2018, roughly 800 workers, employed under temporary employment contracts, marched to the Pikitup Offices to hand over a memorandum to concerning whether they would be absorbed as permanent employees. On
7 March 2018, the workers gathered again to hear feedback from their worker representatives on the dispute, after a meeting with Pikitup leadership. However, the scheduled meeting could not proceed because the Managing Director of Pikitup and the
mayor of Johannesburg refused to attend the meeting. The workers were then dispersed by Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) officers.
At the same time, two other groups of workers were protesting in Braamfontein – one of which was being monitored by a separate team of JMPD officers. This group attempted to set a rubbish bin alight. To disperse the crowd, the JMPD officers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets and began making arrests. The seven former Pikitup workers were caught in the fray, arrested at random, and charged with public violence, despite not being a part of this group.LHR represented the seven workers in the criminal case against them. The Court assessed whether the JMPD officers had given sufficient evidence to prove that workers were
involved in acts of public violence that the State had failed to prove the seven workers’ guilt and the matter was discharged.The outcome was significant given the importance of the right to protest in South Africa, where protests are a major driving force behind progressive social change. LHR’s experience is that the criminal justice system is often used to stifle the right to protest and victimise human rights defenders, including those exercising their labour rights.
On 2 August 2022, LHR presented closing arguments on behalf of five plaintiffs who were allegedly tortured at the Leeuwkop Maximum Correctional Centre. This civil trial involves intentional state conduct relating to the elements of the crime of torture under the Prevention of Combating and Torture of Persons Act, 2013. A successful outcome will be precedent setting and is vital as it requires the court to consider South Africa’s clear, binding international treaty obligations that we are obliged to respect and uphold in respect of protection against torture. Most importantly, it is a case that highlights the right to human dignity, the right to freedom and security of person, and the right to redress.
Looking ahead, LHR will continue to pursue justice in South Africa courts, by helping to clarify and highlight South Africa’s obligations regarding human rights under both domestic and international law. Upcoming matters concern developing South Africa’s jurisprudence regarding an employer’s duty of care towards its employees, protection of whistle blowers, South Africa’s obligation to avoid exporting arms to countries accused of committing gross rights violations including Myanmar, and challenges in respect of the rights of communities facing the prospect of large-scale mining operations within densely populated areas.
Watch this space for continued updates on the outcome and impact of LHR’s bold, creative approach to litigation in pursuit of justice on behalf of South Africa’s most marginalised.
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