Nicole Fritz and Priti Patel’s young institution has recently scored major victories in protecting the rights of people in Southern Africa
Nicole Fritz and Priti Patel, despite living on different continents, knew both privilege and alienation in their formative years.
In the afternoons on the way home from school, Fritz would drive past groups of young uniformed Voortrekkers in the Free State town of Sasolburg, and in her 10-year-old mind there was an otherness between her and her conservative khaki-clad peers.
When she later became a boarder at Johannesburg’s Kingsmead College, Fritz realised why she had felt like an outsider. Black pupils told her about the apartheid opposition movement and of tapes containing speeches by exiled ANC leaders being smuggled into the communities in which her friends lived.
“I gave my parents a really hard time,” she says. “I said, ‘Why weren’t you more involved? Why didn’t you do anything about the 1976 uprisings?’”
Patel grew up as an Indian-American in a small town in Illinois in the Midwest. It “was incredibly homogenous and we were one of the only families that were not white. It definitely led to a lot of discrimination,” she said.
Patel says even as a small child she always spoke out against injustice or prejudice. Becoming a human rights lawyer was the logical follow-on for her. “It didn’t occur to me to do anything else,” she says.
Despite being ostracised because of her race, Patel describes her upbringing in the United States as “vibrant” and a place where she was given “amazing” opportunities to pursue her studies.
She excelled at school, winning a place at the prestigious Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and then going on to study history at Columbia University, travelling to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar, and completing her juris doctorate at New York University.
She brushed shoulders with Fritz at New York University, where Fritz completed her master’s in international legal studies as a Hauser Global scholar. Both would serve as clerks at the Constitutional Court and would work together in the Southern African Litigation Centre.
The path for Fritz, though just as privileged, was not as direct. She started out as an aspirant journalist. But an internship at the Mail & Guardian was disillusioning. “I had more grandiose ideas about what I was going to be doing,” she says.
As many interns do, she was writing stories that senior journalists did not like to cover, such as changes to SABC TV scheduling and interviewing sporting celebrities.
She decided to study for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand and, after completing her master of laws, had several legal academic roles.
She left a law lecturing post at Wits in April 2005 to establish the litigation centre.
It was started following a suggestion by the International Bar Association, which had provided ad hoc assistance to pro bono lawyers in South Africa. It said it was important to “provide more systematic, focused support to lawyers in the Southern African region who were bringing human rights cases to court”.
“I think, at that point, thankfully, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she says.
The litigation centre gets its funding from international and local donors, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, the US Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation, and Trust Africa.
Nine years later, the litigation centre has gone from being a single-person operation to having an all-female staff complement (a coincidence, they assert) of 11, headed by Fritz, with Patel as deputy.
The two have worked together since 2007 and Fritz views her appointment of Patel as “the best decision I have made”.
“Often we discount the importance of those key work relationships to the success of creating an institution. It’s not that we don’t disagree, but I think we work incredibly well together and it’s been enormously rewarding,” Fritz says.
Patel says the work has kept her in South Africa. “I was excited to work with Nicole and to join an organisation that didn’t really have an identity yet,” she says.
“It’s important to me that the doors of the courthouse are open to everyone,” she says.
The past year has been something of a heyday for the nonprofit organisation, which has celebrated several landmark cases being ruled in its favour, including:
– The High Court in Botswana ruled that the government must provide antiretroviral treatment to HIV-positive foreign prisoners;
– The same court ruled that a gay and lesbian group in Botswana, Legabibo, must be allowed to be officially registered;
– The Supreme Court in Namibia upheld a ruling that health workers had sterilised HIV-positive women without their consent; and
– Most recently, and perhaps the centre’s most high-profile victory, was that the Constitutional Court ruled that the South African Police Service was obliged to investigate allegations of torture in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe torture docket case was “a tremendous experience to be part of”, says Fritz.
She recalls visiting people in hospital just after having been allegedly tortured and “seeing their bravery and resilience”. “It was incredibly harrowing. I was a stranger going up to people, meeting them when they were really just so psychologically and physically brutalised.”
Fritz and Patel play down the psychological effects of the job: unlike their partners in Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, “we’re not on the front lines”, they say. But it’s clear they have seen a lot.
Fritz recalls visiting Sierre Leone in 2002 soon after the end of the civil war. “I remember just speaking to people who had had their ears or arms amputated. Because that was the way in which the rebel army conducted its warfare — to terrorise the civilian population.”
Fritz describes it as a hideous memory but speaks about it in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner. “I wonder if there’s a point at which you stop being horrified in the way that you should be,” she says.
Before coming to South Africa, Patel worked for Human Rights First, a nongovernmental organisation in New York, which saw her leading field missions to Afghanistan and monitoring military commission trials at Guantanamo Bay.
Being clerks for some of the greats in the South African legal fraternity provided them with valuable formative experiences. Fritz, who was a clerk for Constitutional Court Judge Richard Goldstone, recalls how he responded to reams of emails (“from the most banal person taking a chance to high-ranking United Nations officials”) on the same day that he received them. That, and his professional optimism, are two things Fritz has tried to replicate in her working life.
Patel, who worked as a clerk for South Africa’s first chief justice, Arthur Chaskalson, says he exuded a logical rationality, made more powerful by his ability to divorce himself from the emotion of an argument.
But it is for retired Constitutional Court Judge Kate O’Regan, for whom Patel also worked as a clerk, who seems to have become a role model. “I think often about her, especially as I get older,” says Patel. “She was not only so sharp — this intellectual powerhouse — she also was juggling a family.”
Fritz and Patel speak of the excitement of working for the court in the early days of democracy. “We have reason to be really proud of the progress of the judiciary,” says Fritz.
“It was amazing to see a young court take its responsibilities so seriously. There was a real sense that they’re creating jurisprudence that’s going to last, hopefully,” says Patel.
The work of the litigation centre follows the same premise. In Patel’s opinion, “litigation is a way to make change. This work is not only important but it makes a difference in people’s lives.”