When I was first looking into a masters at the University of York, I was attracted to the possibility of going for a two week placement in South Africa. South Africa and Malaysia (my home country) share some similar history in terms of colonization, institutionalized racism and affirmative action for the majority. I have read a lot regarding the political situation and the opportunity to do some work in this country made me work harder to get the funds to make sure that I can go on this placement. It went beyond my expectation and provided me with a very good learning experience. I did not regret going on this placement for a second.
Many would have expectations that the placement would be a once in a lifetime experience but I wouldn’t romanticize it. For me, it was life changing. It gives you a first-hand experience of an issue which you may never understand by reading hundreds of articles or journals. In my case this was the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Cape Town and the how different social structure and skin color determines the security in a city.
On the ground
I worked in a team of three with an organisation called Voices of Africans for Change (VAC). The organisation is a smaller scaled NGO, mostly made up of volunteers, working on refugee rights in South Africa. They run capacity building workshops and work hard to bridge the gap between refugees and the local South African community. Our task was to run a survey in a both local township called Dunoon and outside the Home Affairs office, where refugees and asylum seekers go to get status or documentation. We spent 5 days interviewing almost 300 people in both locations. We hope to produce a report at the end of the project using the data obtained from the survey. We’d like to provide some concrete recommendations to improve the situation of refugees in Cape Town in terms of documentation and security.
We faced multiple challenges in getting our work done. Most of these we took as a learning curve and an opportunity to open up our minds to something beyond our understanding. The placement definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me analyse the experience I had and the theories I have studied to find a balance between both.
One of the most valuable experiences I had on this placement was seeing first-hand how a community would behave and react when the state has failed to ensure their safety and provide the most basic necessities. From an outsider’s perspective, it would be seen as something negative and wrong. But being in a totally hopeless situation, their mind-set was tuned to believe that what they are doing is right and just. The experience taught me not to judge but to analyse and understand a place based on situations. In short, if you are serious about going into human rights work, the placement will give a short preview on what is it all about.