Courts and accountability in South Africa

Geoff Budlender is a human rights lawyer who helped found South Africa’s Legal Resource Centre (LRC) – a public interest law firm that has served the country’s poor and indigent, particularly in the face of apartheid legislation.

In his Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture last week, he responded to ongoing struggles concerning the separation of powers in government. In a characteristically fair-minded manner, he challenged the current president’s  seeming assault on the judiciary, while also conceding that the government has a “legitimate complaint” in pointing out that the process of enforcing rights may sometimes undermine its ability to deliver services. In an era in which courts are playing an important role in forcing governments to live up to the social and economic rights enshrined in their constitutions, circumscribing appropriate roles will continue to be a matter of negotiation and conflict.

The dilemmas of democracy for service provision are profound – at times, democratic institutions help facilitate delivery that almost certainly would not have occurred in its absence. But those same institutions can sometimes produce sub-optimal outcomes. These are the costs of fairness and accountability that can seem quite frustrating to pay, but as Budlender suggests, the alternatives would be worse.

Kudos to the LRC for supporting human rights in South Africa for 30 years

I received news this morning (from Harvey Dale, the President of the Southern African Legal Services Foundation) that the Legal Resource Centre just released its annual report:

They are celebrating thirty years of upholding the rule of law in South Africa and providing legal services there to the poor and the vulnerable. They were instrumental in helping to mitigate the effects of and eventually dismantle the apartheid structure. It is an amazing organization, doing critical work, and I have been privileged to work with them over the past three years. Until I came into closer contact with their work, I really hadn’t appreciated just how crucial the judiciary has been for a wide range of social and economic issues in South Africa.

Recently — and this also comes via Harvey —  the LRC achieved an “8.2 billion rand ($1.2 billion) settlement with the Eastern Cape Department of Education in February on behalf of seven so-called mud schools in the former Transkei.  Prior to this settlement, the South African government had included only one of 400 mud schools in its plans for replacement or improvement of schools.”

This is a huge settlement that will have a serious impact on one of South Africa’s biggest challenges — improving the sorry state of its school system.

You can read more about the settlement and find the memorandum of agreement here