Thandeka Chauke has been driven by a deep concern for justice and human rights since her school days. So it’s not surprising that now, as a qualified lawyer, she works for the South African-based legal NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).
But her particular focus these days is on the people who are right on the margins of society – the stateless. We asked how her interest and concern for this group first developed.
‘I originally joined LHR as a volunteer,’ she explains, ‘and I worked with the land and housing programme on issues like unlawful evictions. Then, in early 2020, we came across a desperate case. A community that had come to be called Little Zimbabwe was being targeted for repeated raids and demolitions. It was quite desperate, especially the plight of the children.’
During the Covid epidemic she again visited the community there, to see how people were coping with the situation. That’s when the cause and enormity of the fundamental problem experienced by that community really hit home to her: the people weren’t able to access any official government Covid-related help that was on offer because they didn’t have formal identification documents. And, once again, it was the children of the settlement that were suffering the most.
Convinced that this was the field where she should put her energies, she switched from the land and housing programme to join the LHR's refugee and migrant rights programme where she now leads the statelessness unit. Of this role, she says her aim is to bring ‘as much visibility as possible to people who are otherwise invisible.’
‘It’s so easy to take for granted that we have an identity document and other documentation to prove who we are, but for so many people that’s just a dream.
Gateway human right
‘The right to a nationality is one of the most forgotten of human rights, but it’s actually one of the most critical. So many other rights are dependent on this one: it’s a gateway human right.’
She sees, close-up, the many setbacks of her stateless clients, often caused by administrative decisions that have cruel consequences. What helps her keep going despite this?
‘I take injustice personally and that is the driving energy in my work. These cases are dire, and I’m motivated to find solutions within the law. I try to use every opportunity and platform to raise awareness about the profound impact of statelessness.’ She’s also focused on ‘empowering people to help themselves, even if it’s just with information.’
Chauke has a message for readers: you too can help with the problem of statelessness, she says.
‘Judges can play a crucial role by advocating for the protection of stateless individuals and incorporating measures to end statelessness in their judgments. In addition, judges can hold states accountable for their obligations in preventing and eliminating statelessness.’
Equally, lawyers and other members of the legal profession have a role to play. ‘There’s a crisis over access to justice for people affected by statelessness.
‘Lawyers, especially those working for the big corporates, should dedicate more time and resources to work on this issue.
‘We can empower (those affected by the problem) to help themselves, but inevitably they will need access to (legal) help when they need it.’
Is there any potentially landmark litigation on the issue of statelessness that readers should be aware of? Yes, there is. ‘We (LHR) have launched a case in SA on behalf of more than 100 people, that challenges a practice we have called “ID blocking”.’
‘Blocking’ involves the invalidation of certain SA ID documents if officials suspect the document is being used fraudulently, or if there was a duplication, for example. It began in 2012, and by December 2020, official figures put the number of blocked IDs at nearly one million. This ‘blocking’ of an ID document can cause chaos. Someone might go to their bank to draw money, but find that their card doesn’t work any longer. Other crucial services and existing rights are impacted. Even their children are affected because they can’t get documentation if they can’t show a valid ID number for their parents.
Chauke stresses that this problem, and the potential impact of the decision, isn’t limited to SA. The famous case of Anudo v Tanzania, delivered by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2018, dealt with a similar situation, where someone was ‘arbitrarily deprived of his nationality’. Across the continent, people are vulnerable to action, by governments or by bureaucrats, that could make them stateless, leaving them without the documents they need to function in a modern society.
Judgment in the case has been reserved, but it is one to look out for, says Chauke.
- AfricanLII will report on the judgment, expected early in 2024, as soon as it is delivered.
Read more about ID blocking case
Chauke is also the editor of a quarterly newsletter, Statelessness in Southern Africa.
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