This past week was when everything really settled in for me. I shook of the rest of the dust from back home and dove into my role here in South Africa. The massive case files they handed me to sort out the first week began to get thinner, and new files didn’t seem so cumbersome. I was able to realize that although I miss those back home, my focus is now on the people here— those I work with and interact with daily. I was able to plunge deeper into the job I signed up for, and not only take part in the good times, but climb down into the crags and clay and make myself comfortable– because the dirty work is what I signed up for.
I accepted the fact that although I don’t know all of South African law, it’s my responsibility to figure out how to give mothers their children back, take children away from abusive parents, release someone of a fraudulent debt that’s too heavy to survive under the weight of, and decide if the 15 year old boy that was seen in the same place at the same time where the dead body turned up is rightfully accused of murder. Those are a few of the cases I’m responsible for. It’s my job to make all of these cases right, follow up and determine the next step to take, and make my work so sound that it will uphold in court if the case gets litigated.
It all sounds too serious right? Like I couldn’t just be handed responsibility like that. Like I’m not qualified to hold the power of deciding what the next steps need to be for a 15 year old boy accused of murder— being the only one standing in between someone’s accusation and a teenager spending his entire life in one of the most gruesome prisons in this part of the world. The overwhelming truth is that I’m obviously not qualified for this, and I wasn’t ready to carry the weight and the responsibility of people’s lives until the time came when I was just expected to. Then again, you’re never ready for something like this until you’re handed the job, and it’s you who has to make the choice of throwing yourself in the chaos or backing the heck out. Backing out means you abandon someone in need, and throwing yourself in the chaos means you may mess something up in the case and alter someone’s life drastically. In the end, the truth is that without people like us at the Human Rights Office, these matters wouldn’t be resolved, and there would be nowhere to turn for people who can’t afford legal services.
Messing up is part of learning, and I’d always rather try and fail than fail to try; but sometimes failing in this job isn’t just embarrassing or hard or frustrating— failing could mean someone loses their right to be free, or being forced to return to a war torn country. It all seems too much sometimes, but the simple willingness to climb down into the dark valley is most of the battle, and in the end we’re not alone. The human rights office has two attorneys that help guide the process and assist in what may need to come next; however, for the most part it’s up to us, the interns, to walk the case to its end.
It still seems crazy to me, but I came ready for anything. One of the social work missions that we take on at PAHRO is working with the boys at Bonnytoun detention center. The boys held at Bonnytoun have committed crimes all the way from petty theft to rape and murder. It’s horrifying to imagine a 7 year old who stole candy sleeping in the same bunk as the 17 year old convicted of rape or murder, but everyone at Bonnytoun is lumped in together. Regardless of how old you are, or what crime you’re accused of, criminal minors are viewed the same way. Every week we visit Bonnytoun and offer educational presentations, play games, throw out candy for prizes, have dance competitions, and basically hang out with the boys there— letting them know that they’re neither alone not forgotten.
The first time I went I was told it was my job to give a presentation on premarital sex, so I said “okay.” I didn’t know this until about an hour before we left, but it ended up being great. Shuan, our social justice coordinator, gave me a PowerPoint to present with and told me I had free reign to add in whatever I wanted. Any speech with some freedom isn’t so bad— and knowing that these boys are entertained just to see the projector screen on the wall was enough for me to settle in quickly.
We worked with the “blue” and “red” quadrants of boys, which are those awaiting trial and not yet sentenced. Once they unlocked the door to the common room, there were about 40 boys that filed in and looked around with suspicion. The first thing we did was introduce ourselves: name, where you’re from, how old you are, how long you’re going to be in South Africa. After this, the boys had free reign to ask whatever they wanted. I got asked all kinds of stuff, from “do you have a girlfriend” and “what’s her name,” to “are you a bodybuilder” and “who is your favorite rugby team.” We played a few icebreaker games and eventually meshed in with each other. Once everyone was laughing at themselves in a game of “Yes, my lord” we were all able to settle in and gain a little trust with one another.
After talking and laughing with these kids and giving the presentation, we hooked up the speakers and had a dance competition. Stiff at first, everyone soon loosened up their legs and the boys showed off some backflips and breakdance moves, along with the usual shuffle with hands in the air.
Everyone was laughing and pushing each other to dance and embrace the moment. By the end, me and three of the Bonnytoun boys were bent over laughing and slapping each other’s backs about one little guy who wouldn’t give up trying to slow dance with one of our female interns. Watching a guy get shut down is universally hilarious— I found that out at Bonnytoun. A couple of high fives and fist-pounds later, we got in the van and headed back to the office.
When the hour long drive back settled down into just the radio and wind through the open windows, I had time to think about what I’d just done, who I’d been with, what it was like, and what will more than likely happen to the boys I spent time with. The majority of those awaiting trial will be sentenced, by which they will then serve more time at Bonnytoun. Several of the older boys will likely turn 18 before their sentence is up, and then be transferred to Pollsmore maximum security prison to carry out their sentences. Most of the boys will have their freedom further revoked, and still some will never taste freedom again. I saw the tattoos covering their bodies, I read what they said, I had an idea where most of the boys came from, and more than likely I shook hands with boys who had raped and murdered; but, we had a chance to speak the universal languages with one another: we spoke laughter, acceptance, and love.
These accused “rapists” and “murderers” held in Bonnytoun are just boys— most of them just in the wrong place at the wrong time, some who couldn’t say no to acceptance from the wrong people, and some more than likely there just for following the code of the gang and taking the blame for another one of the older members. It breaks my heart to know that so many of these boys will lose their lives and freedoms before they’re even old enough to taste what real life is like. Some of these boys will lose their lives before they ever kiss a girl, fall in love, before they ever meet their father or drive a car. It’s crazy to think how short and sudden life can be. If you’re reading this, say a prayer for the boys in Bonnytoun. Sometimes faith is all you’ve got.