Don's Diary

December 19, 1997


9pm. Heathrow. Fogbound. Only Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are missing.


Midnight. Take-off to arrive hours later after lunch in the bright sunshine of a Cape Town day. Having boycotted South Africa for so long it seems strange to return here for the second time in two months. South Africa is a very exciting place for human rights lawyers now. The new law commission is drafting a statute on child criminal justice and is actively seeking to incorporate international human rights standards.

I am met from the plane and driven to a place of safety for boys where they are held on remand. One member of staff candidly admits that children are abused by staff and, although she has made official complaints, nothing has happened.

During an official welcoming dinner I find myself in an academic nightmare. Three of us have been asked to prepare exactly the same paper. I am one of two consultants who received the wrong instructions. Unfortunately, I am the first guest speaker.

Late that night I begin writing a new paper. Eyes barely open as a second sleepless night looms.


6am. Awoken from a deep sleep by an alarm call. Continue writing.

A few hours later I am on my feet setting out which international legal principles need to be incorporated into a new child justice statute. The session is chaired by the deputy minister of justice. The afternoon session focuses on restorative justice and the age of criminal capacity. South Africa has one of the world's lowest ages: seven.

In the evening I am taken with my fellow consultants from Canada, Ghana, New Zealand, Uganda and the United States to Chapman's Peak which has a breathtaking view of the ocean. The very winding mountainous road was constructed by Italian prisoners of war. We dine in a fish restaurant in Hout's Bay, but I can barely keep my eyes open. Shortly before midnight I collapse into bed.


Awoken from a deep sleep by an early alarm call. Prepare for participation in a panel on police powers. Joining me and academic colleagues from New Zealand and South Africa are two South African police officers.

An ideal child criminal justice system involves flexibility and discretion but this is a dilemma for a new South Africa. The majority of police officers are the same as those who served under and benefited from apartheid.

In the afternoon a paper is delivered on legal representation. Although under the new constitution children are entitled to a lawyer, 80 per cent of children appearing in court have no legal representation. This is because of a shortage of well-trained child rights lawyers, a largely discredited legal profession and a belief among children that the assistance of a lawyer is only necessary if the child is guilty.

Later in the day I meet with the minister of justice. Children's rights are a high priority for the new government and by meeting us he is expressing his support for the law commission's work. We are escorted into the parliament. The debate is halted while the speaker introduces us by name.

Bed at midnight.


Awoken from a deep sleep by an alarm call. Today's presentations and discussion focus on family group conferences and diversions away from formal trials. At 3.30pm the law commission concludes the session and I am taken to Table Mountain in the new cable car. Wonder why the cable pole to which I am clinging appears to be moving away from me - driver announces new cable car has revolving floor.

Atop Table Mountain. Majestic magnificence. In the evening I am driven to the restored waterfront of Cape Town and, again at midnight, collapse into bed.


Sitting at a breakfast meeting with the secretariat of the law commission and its project team, we are asked whether we are willing to continue working with them on return to our own countries. Everybody is willing. They are doing such wonderful work.

At lunch time we eat traditional Cape Malay cooking at South Africa's oldest vineyard, Groot Constantia. Spiced meat with custard topping is surprisingly good.

By 9.15pm I am back on SAA. Too tired to take advantage of business class goodies. Ask for an eye mask, a glass of water and sleep for seven hours.


7.15am. Heathrow. James. Flowers. Bliss.

Geraldine Van Buren Reader in law and director of the programme on international rights of the child, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

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