Don's Diary

October 6, 2000


Once again endure the pleasures of an overnight flight to Johannesburg. It is easier to commute to Jo'burg than it is to take the Central Line to Mile End. I am returning to South Africa at the end of my sabbatical year, which I spent working on poverty alleviation. Land and go straight to Pretoria.


Attend a conference co-hosted by the University of Pretoria and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Analyse and debate economic and social human rights internationally and in South Africa. Is there a role for the courts? How can unelected judges measure an elected government's compliance with the right to health, for example, without violating the separation of powers? All key issues.

South Africa is one of the few countries that has incorporated economic and social rights into its Bill of Rights, brought in under the auspices of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in 1996.

The UK's Human Rights Act is strangely silent on the rights of the impoverished, despite our numbers of unemployed and homeless.


At the conference, time is split equally between presentations and audience contributions. This moves the debate along unexpected and more profound channels.


Go on safari. Bravely put my hand into a lion's mouth. OK, it was toothless and only three weeks old. Stroke a four-month-old lion cub but decline to do the same to an 11-month-old - insufficient life insurance.


Soweto is 20 minutes away from the deserted streets of central Jo'burg. Its size and sprawl is surprising - many more live in Soweto than Jo'burg - and it feels safer. Housing varies from the larger home of Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela to the metal shacks of the informal settlements. The government has installed water pumps and temporary lavatories. The building of basic housing is a priority. After the brutal deprivations of apartheid, deciding where to start and whom to prioritise is an overwhelming task. These decisions are awaiting judgement by the constitutional court.

A group of squatters evicted from their settlement near Cape Town have sued the government for violating their right to shelter. I am pleased to find that my work has been cited on the side of the squatters.

Fly down to Cape Town.


Climb Lion's Head with a judge who is the editor of one of South Africa's leading commentaries on its Bill of Rights.

He was appointed to the bench as a talented academic and outspoken chair of a television discussion programme. It is an indication of the strength of South Africa's vibrant democracy that it can appoint judges from among its critical academics. He would not have been considered in England.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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