Legal Assistance Centre

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By mid-1988, Namibia was firmly under the iron first of South African apartheid rule, and the long and bitter armed struggle for the country's liberation was raging.

Especially in northern Namibia, torture and assault, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial, and the destruction of property, livelihoods and lives, were daily realities.

Human rights abuses were routine and went unpunished. The rule of law was non-existent.

This insufferable situation provide the impetus for the establishment of a public interest, human rights law firm – the Legal Assistance Centre.

After months of discussions with workers, students and church leaders, and numerous fundraising efforts, Windhoek lawyer, founding Director and now Chairperson of the LAC, Dave Smuts SC, opened the doors of the new Legal Assistance Centre in Ongwediva on 9 July 1988.

The LAC's lawyers and paralegals were suddenly flooded with cases involving human rights abuses.

Hundreds of summonses were issued against the South African government in the first few days of the centre for monetary compensation amounting to several thousand Namibian dollars.

The LAC's lawyers, acting for families of detainees and tortured people, began to make inquiries at police stations and detention centres around the country.

Numerous applications were brought in the courts for the release of detainees.

For the first time in its brutal history in Namibia, the South African government had to account for its atrocities in its own courts.

As people became aware of the LAC, the demand for its services grew and soon after the first two offices in Windhoek and Ongwediva opened, the LAC established its presence in Tsumeb, Walvis Bay, Rundu, Gobabis, Mariental, Katutura and Opuwo.

The LAC's commitment to upholding human rights did not endear it to the South African government and its security forces.

The apartheid government then challenged the very existence of the LAC by claiming that its structure and composition – employing lawyers and paralegals to provide legal services to the indigent for free – was illegal.

The LAC approached the Supreme Court of South West Africa to safeguard its existence and its work for the people's human rights.

The former Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, Justice Arthur Chaskalson, at the time a formidable human rights lawyer, represented the Legal Assistance Centre and after a forceful argument before a full bench, the South African government lost the case – a scenario which would become increasingly familiar in the two years leading up to Namibia's independence.

Undeterred in their efforts, staff members of the LAC were now receiving death threats from the apartheid regime's security forces but the soldiered on and very rapidly transformed a legal landscape in which that might of the state had previously been unchallenged.

Those who had in the past suffered in silence began to have a voice. The legal system was no being used as an instrument of justice as opposed to a tool of oppression.

A culture of human rights was taking a tangible form. At the opening ceremony of the Ongwediva office, Dave Smuts said that “...the aim of establishing the centre is closely related to the ideal of establishing a human rights culture where human rights would be respected and the law would be transformed from an instrument of oppression into a means of securing rights and justice.”

This noble guiding vision, crafted in the LAC's mission statement and uncompromisingly reflected in its work, did not disappear with the advent of Namibia's independence two years later.

As independence drew near and the liberation fighters returned on 1 April 1989, the South African security forces' brutality and utter disregard for people's lives and property continued unabated.

Several hundred liberation fighters were killed.

The LAC's lawyers conducted a thorough investigation and reported the widespread extra-judicial killings of returning PLAN fighters by the security forces to the United Nations (UN).

The UN intervened and nine days later the killings stopped.

The LAC also played an important role in the release of political prisoners in the days leading up to Namibia's first free elections.

An overwhelming majority of Namibians had never voted before.

The LAC provided voter education services and monitored the election campaign and the election process itself.

The LAC made representations to the UN and the South African government which resulted in the repeal of restrictive laws and the release of political prisoners.

Considering the country's history, the moment when the Namibian flag was hoisted on 21 March 1990 in an independent, democratic and free Namibia with a Bill of Rights paralleled by few in the world, was one of pure joy.

In celebrating independence and the attendant rights and freedoms, the LAC took up the challenge to give substance to these newly acquired rights and responsibilities.

The Bill of Rights was promptly published by the LAC in a simplified version and translated into many Namibian languages.

One of the other most important pieces of legislation, the Labour Act of 1992, was published by the LAC in English and, despite many reprints, remains sold out. The LAC also trained union officials to deal with labour disputes in the context of the new law.

The LAC's staff provided valuable input to new laws being debated in parliament, such as the Married Persons Equality Act, the Social Security Act, the Land Reform Acts, the Maintenance Act, the Namibia Communications Bill, the Combating of Domestic Violence Act, the Child Justice Bill, the Combating of Rape Act, and the Child Status Bill.

Post independence, the scope of the LAC's work has widened to incorporate education, research, law reform and affirmative action, as well as gender issues, children's issues, conservation, land and environmental issues.

The LAC continues to play a crucial role in the building of a constitutional democracy through its work.

For this purpose, a cadre of young Namibian lawyers was needed and money was raised to train them. More than 20 Namibians, including the LAC's current director, and more than 10 past and present staff members, qualified as lawyers.

Through litigation, research and public debates the LAC continues to give substance to the rights enshrined in the Constitution and other laws.

In collaboration with government, old laws have been repealed and new laws drafted that conform to the Constitution.

Several of the new laws, such as the Combating of Rape Act of 2000, are arguably the most advanced in the world.

Aware of its duty to work towards the protection of the most vulnerable in society, the LAC provided its services in the health sector in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

In a landmark case, the LAC's lawyers successfully challenged the Namibian Defense Force's (NDF) recruitment policy and consequently HIV-positive people may not be excluded from the NDF.

The LAC's work in the HIV and AIDS environment of a human rights approach to deal with the pandemic is highly sought after.

In 1990, the director of the LAC, Dave Smuts, received an award from the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, in recognition of his work at the Legal Assistance Centre.

In 1997, Andrew Corbett, then the director of the LAC, accepted the prestigious UNICEF Maurice Pate Human Rights Award on behalf of the Legal Assistance Centre.

In 2004, current director Norman Tjombe received the Freedom of Expression Special Award from the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

The LAC continues to expand its work, with emphasis being placed on the socio-economic rights of Namibians.

As it celebrates two decades of existence, the Legal Assistance Centre has stood up to the challenged posed by a new constitutional democracy and will continue to do so. It is truly an institution of human rights on duty.

Click here to learn more about the challenges facing present-day Namibia.

To meet some of the people the LAC is assisting click here.