Remembering why I went to law school, and learning to talk about race

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

By Rona Ghanbari

Ultimately, my IHRP experience so far has taught me about race, about economics, about political power, about being passionate and relentless in your work and - most importantly to my life – that I most definitely do belong in the legal field.

By the end of my first year in law school I was having some serious doubts as to whether I belong in the legal field. Despite having incredible professors and extremely accomplished peers, I felt disconnected with what practicing law is genuinely like, and in a sea of students feeding off each others’ stress it can be hard not to feel like you’re drowning. I was hoping that my internship at SECTION27 this summer would make it clear to me whether I was pursing the right career: it absolutely did. After my time here in South Africa at working at SECTION27, I have a completely renewed sense of why I was so passionate to pursue a legal education in the first place.

SECTION27 is a public interest law center that is named after section 27 of the South African Constitution. Section 27 of the Constitution guarantees the right to health care, sufficient food and water, as well as social security. As an organization, SECTION27 focuses on access to health care, but also works heavily on issues relating to access to education. The organization uses a variety of methods to promote and protect constitutionally entrenched rights in South Africa including litigation, policy work, advocacy, and workshops. I have been fortunate enough in my time here so far to be involved in all facets of this work.

Rona Gambari with colleagues at Section27Given that all the work the organization does is rooted in the idea that the Constitution is the supreme law of South Africa, I had to quickly familiarize myself with the Constitution. I was surprised to discover that South Africa has an exceptionally comprehensive constitution, which includes not only fundamental rights such as the rights to life, expression, religion, and democratic rights; but also socio-economic rights such as the right to social security. Even more, unlike the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, South Africa’s Constitution applies both vertically (to government action) and horizontally (between private actors, including corporations). The South African Constitution is extremely young - only 21 years old - so there are still many issues with regard to the implementation and balancing of these complex rights. This means that many of the issues I’ve been involved with here at SECTION27 result in big strides forward for the protection and promotion of rights in South Africa.

Another truth I had to quickly familiarize myself with was the deep racial divide in the country. In my experience in Canada, speaking about race and racism is an extremely uncomfortable topic, only to be brought up during "safe" academic settings, or sometimes overheard at a party where some of the guests have had a few too many drinks - even then it’s typically followed by “man, that’s heavy, let’s not talk about this now.” In South Africa, people are classified into one of five categories: “white”, “black”, “coloured” (partial white heritage and partial black heritage), “Asian/Indian” (yes, they are lumped together), and “other.” From the moment I stepped foot in the office, people spoke openly and frankly about the issue of race, and in fact used those discussions as a learning opportunity and a tool to better engage with the populations the organization was aiming to empower. I had always considered myself a racially sensitive and aware person, given that my own parents are immigrants to Canada, but I have never learned more about the complexities of racial dynamics than being a listener (and eventually a participant) in these conversations. I hadn’t realized until arriving how little I truly knew about the complexities of racial divide. It was also interesting to me to hear people debate about what category I fit into. Many people here regarded me as “white”, which is definitely not something I’ve ever been categorized as before in my life. Others just lumped me into an “other” category, or stated that anyone who isn’t explicitly “white” is by default Black (capital B, meaning not black in terms of the racial category given by the government). These discussions about race have informed every bit of research and work that I’ve been doing over the course of my time here.

In terms of my work, one of my main projects this summer was compiling a booklet about the state of the Private Health Care market in South Africa, with a specific focus on bringing forward the patient voice. As previous mentioned, access to health care services is enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental human right. Pursuant to section 27 of the Constitution, the state has an obligation to take reasonable steps using legislation and other measures to achieve the realization of this right. South Africa currently has a duel public/private health care system, which means that the functioning and efficiency of the private health care sector necessarily has an impact on the public health care sector as well. I was particularly excited to work on issues within the health care sector, given Canada’s pride in our Universal Health Care system, and given my personal experiences in hospitals and doctors offices. I wanted to know how people navigated such a complex system in a country where millions of people suffer from severe illnesses, such as tuberculosis and HIV.

In January 2014, the South African Competition Commission officially launched an inquiry into the state of the private health care system, due to the increasing cost of access to private health care. These increased costs have been a serious barrier to access to health care across the country, specifically in rural areas. My role was to research and compile a booklet that was initially meant to be approximately 8 pages long. I was supposed to speak with patients, and tell their stories while providing a legal analysis of their situation and stressing the importance of the patient voice in the context of the market inquiry. After travelling to the province of Mpumalanga to visit the very first patient I interviewed with my colleague, we realized an 8 page booklet wasn’t going to cut it. The variety of issues these patients were facing, their vulnerability, and the reckless abandon demonstrated by some of the medical schemes, made it clear that this booklet should be a resource and tool not only for the competition commission to complete their inquiry while keeping the patient in mind, but also a resource and tool for the thousands and thousands of people being wronged by the private health care system and a weak regulatory framework.


The booklet has now grown into a 50+ page book, encompassing explanations of patients’ rights; a dozen patient stories with an in depth explanation of the patient’s situation and the legal issues with it; editorials by experts in the field such as a Constitutional Court judge, an economist, and the heads of organizations such as Patients Living With Cancer; infographics about the state of health in South Africa; a flow chart explaining the private health system and how exactly it works; and many other resources. After hearing these stories and researching into a deeply problematic system, I have become incredibly invested in South Africa and its patients.

The book is set to be strategically published before the public hearing held by the market inquiry, and I am extremely excited and anxious to see if it has any sort of positive effect on the outcome of the inquiry, and the lives of the patients involved.

Ultimately, my IHRP experience so far has taught me about race, about economics, about political power, about being passionate and relentless in your work and - most importantly to my life – that I most definitely do belong in the legal field.

Photo Credit: Rona Ghambari