S. African blacks find strong, new friend: legal aid

Doing the cooking, washing, ironing, and housecleaning was a full-time job. But when her white employer added gardening to the duties of the middle-aged Zulu domestic worker, trouble started.

There were heated exchanges, and during one of them the black woman was berated and slammed against a wall. She left her employer, but without any severance pay or the $80 in savings that had been withheld from her $75 monthly salary.

Until the past year or so, that might have been the end of the story. But the black woman found her way to the third floor of a builidng near the Johannesburg railway station.

There, at the Hoek Street law clinic, a white law student listened to her story. Then, the student called the employer and hammered out an agreement aht allowed the black worker to get all the money she was due. And if the employer had not settled, she might well have found herself going to court.

Public interest law has come to South Africa. And blacks here in the country's largest city are finding a new legal voice to express some of their grievances.

South Africa's first Legal Resources Center (LRC) was founded here last year, primarily though the efforts of attorneys in the Johannesburg area. Its $250, 000 yearly budget comes both from local companies -- many of which prefer anonymity -- and such American philantropies as the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Over the past 15 months, the LRC's full-time staff has grown from one attorney to six. It provides professional supervision for three legal clinics and runs a fourth. And, despite some obstackes, the center is sending a few changes rippling through South African society.

The LRC and the clincs it overses are patterned after the "storefron" legal services and public-interest law firms in the United States. Law students from area universities, under the supervision of practicing attorneys, give legal advice to (and, in some cases, take legal action on behalf of) poor people. The students and attorneys volunteer their time, with no charge to their clients.

Although some other countries have had such services for years, the idea is new -- and, to some people, startling -- one here. Suddenly, some employers who dismiss workers without proper notice are faced with demands for severance pay. Various government officials who do no follow proper administrative procedures are challenged.

And some companies using questionable business techniques -- such as charging exorbitant finance costs and the quickly repossessing merchandise when customers fall behind on payments -- are threatened with court action.

In turn, some black South Africans are finding they can exercise legal rights they never knew they had. "It's an attempt to build into the society the view that if you can use legal processes, that's important. And that no matter what the shape of the society in the future, legal processes should be maintained," says Geoffrey Budlender, an LRC staff attorney.

In South Africa, that is no small task. There are virtually no individual rights entrenched in the South African Constitution. And it is extremely difficult to mount a "class action" lawsuit on behalf of, for example, consumers defrauded by a specific company.

Consequently, courts here rearely issue far-reaching judgments to half abusive or illegal practices. Instead errant companies or government agencies have to be hit with enough lawsuits to make their conduct unprofitable or impractical. Black people, who are aften at the receiving end of unjust or corrupt practices, often lack the funds to contest matters in court.

The LRC seeks to correct that inequity in some measure. In addition to handling hundreds of individual complaints each month through its clinics, the center also launches test cases involving broader legal issues.

"I think there is bettering of race relations on both sides," said Cynthia Pretorius, a white Afrikaner woman, after helping a Zulu domestic worker "because other races realize that whites are not j ust here to tread on them."

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