Having a library card and being engaged in interesting work are two of the things I need to make a place home. In September 2015, I got my Joburg library card and today was my first day at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI for short), a pluralist domestic public policy institute based in Johannesburg. Along with 29 other fellows, I’m taking part in the ASRI Future Leaders Fellowship Programme, a six month program aimed at “producing effective and innovative change agents who can bring about transformative change in South African society”. 2016 is the first year of the Fellowship Programme and I’m so excited for the learning and growth that God-willing, will take place over the next six months. The theme for Week 1 is Law and Justice and Day 1 was a wonderful and interesting introduction and overview of the South African Constitution. We were graced by a visit from Janet Love, the National Director of the Legal Resources Centre (and overall rockstar) and Richard Chemaly of Pro Bono.org. The LRC is South Africa’s largest public interest human rights law clinic, and Janet Love’s remarks on justice, law, and the process of writing the Constitution were thought provoking and inspiring. After lunch, Richard Chemaly did a workshop that was a closer examination of the Constitution and an overview of rights theory, the Bill of Rights, and Section 9 Institutions ( An example of a Section 9 Institution is the South Africa Human Rights Commission, or the Public Protector.) I now have a purse-sized copy of the Bill of Rights which feels very exciting, and I’m glad that we got a chance to look at it closely with him.
One of my personal goals is to record my learning and I’m hoping I can chronicle my day to day learnings and take-aways through Seriously Planning. Below are some of my take-aways from Day 1. Just as a disclaimer: these are only my reflections from my own experiences, and so my reflections below are mine, and not ASRI viewpoints in any way.
1) Today we started our day off discussing current events such as the State of the Nation Address (SONA) and the constitutional court case called the Nkandla case, and during the discussion I started to think about the process of belonging and investing in a place. How and when do you see yourself as part of a place and when do you belong to it? Canada recently had elections that saw a new Prime Minister and the removal of a truly terrible leader named Stephen Harper who was in power for nearly a decade, and when Stephen Harper was in office, whenever he acted poorly I had an emotional, visceral reaction to it. I was upset. I got angry. It was a topic of discussion among friends. Canada has never been a perfect place and has a painful history but I have always felt it is my country, and actions of leaders who damage the country and take it down the wrong road have felt personally hurtful. Today I had read up about both topics for our current affairs discussion, but as our discussion unfolded I realized that I had engaged with the events from a distance, not as someone who is from South Africa itself. Given that there are so many restrictions on what non-South Africans can do in the country this makes sense as my engagement with South Africa so far as been mostly on a community and family level, but today made me realize that I want to invest more deeply into my new home and hopefully transform into seeing myself as part of South Africa and genuinely feeling like I belong here.
2) On a related note, it is a humbling and strange feeling to realize just how new I am to South Africa, and how much I don’t know about the country. I moved to South Africa almost ten months ago from Canada when I got married, and nearly all of my life prior to that move has been in Canada. Everything about my context is new, and while a lot of learning has happened over the last several months, being in this fellowship has made me feel like a brand new learner. I studied political science at the undergraduate level at UBC in Vancouver and social planning at the Masters Level at the University of Toronto, so both the context of my formal education and lived experience/informal education has been in an Canadian context. I studied French in school, can speak Urdu at a basic level, and English is my first language. But today in our first day, I found myself scribbling references in the margins of my notes to look up for later (What is the Freedom Charter? How do local elections work? Where is x town? What does that Zulu phrase mean?) The list goes on, but it is a strange feeling that so much of what is common knowledge in the room isn’t common knowledge for me, though it is a blessing as it is making me aware of the things I didn’t know I didn’t know, and making me want to expand my language skills /knowledge of common phrases. My husband is also a fellow in the program, and at home asking lots of questions to clarify points of general knowledge helped me understand things I had found confusing earlier in the day and led to rich conversations. God willing I’m hoping each day during and after the program will translate into more and more learning, but right now I do feel quite new to everything.
3) Today we spoke about the process of writing and making the Constitution, the extensive public consultation that took place during the writing process, the models from other places that were looked at for inspiration, and the careful deliberations that took place around wording of sections and different clauses. It was inspiring, and I’d like to read more about the process of creating the South African Constitution. Book recommendation would be most welcome if you have suggestions!
4) While so much is new, when it happens, it is very cool to see connections from time to time between institutions in Canada and South Africa. We spoke about the Public Protector today for instance, and it sounds very similar to the role of the Attorney -General in Canada. When I first started learning French I found my mind went from English and translated to French instead of thinking directly in French, and similarly, I found today that when we were learning concepts my mind was trying to connect it to a possible Canadian equivalent. I’m not sure if these mental attempts at translating back and forth is a good thing or a bad thing, but I do look forward to becoming more “fluent” so to speak and thinking of South Africa on its own.
All in all a thought provoking, interesting, learning-filled inspiring day, and an excellent start to the program. Here’s to Day 2 tomorrow!