We continue our celebration of National Pro Bono Week (NPBW), today with a post from Claire Palmer on her experiences as an intern at the Supreme Court of Namibia in Windhoek.
In October 2014, I commenced an OPBP-supported internship at the Supreme Court of Namibia in Windhoek as part of the South African Judicial Assistance Project, coordinated in its inaugural year by both the University of Oxford and the University of Cape Town.
Namibia is a young, proud, fascinating country rising fast in southern Africa. The state’s long struggle for independence from both South Africa and foreign colonial influence is crystallized in the names of Windhoek’s streets on my route to work each morning: Nelson Mandela Avenue, Fidel Castro Street, Robert Mugabe Drive and Independence Avenue. Independence Avenue stretches right from the (still mildly Germanic) city centre to the township of Katutura, where more than two-thirds of Windhoek’s population resides. Katutura (literally: ‘the place where people do not want to live’) was created in 1961 following the forced removal of Windhoek’s black population from the town centre.
In many respects, Windhoek is a study in contrasts. The natural beauty and – coming from Oxford – sheer brightness of the area is astounding. Roads outside the centre are dusty and footpath-less, yet I am hypnotized daily by a purple haze of jacarandas and the deep red African sunset which blazes over a shimmer of violet hills. Namibian people are warm, friendly, and upbeat, but I am constantly warned as a foreigner not to walk the streets at night. The German-style cafes, Mercedes Benz cars, and the sweep of grand houses on the hill attest to the expanding wealth of this burgeoning African metropolis, but the rapid rise is producing its own inequalities. As housing costs surge (and I hear that property prices in Windhoek are rising faster than any other city apart from Dubai), people are pushed further and further out into the townships, where one is just as likely to live in a demountable corrugated iron shed as a house. Namibia’s apartheid history still casts a long shadow, with some groups remaining socially and spatially marginalized, and victim to concomitant structural inequalities.
I arrive at the Supreme Court just as it is commencing its October/November session of court hearings. For over a month, the Court sits most days in order to hear and adjudicate appeals from Namibia’s High Court. The Supreme Court is also able to hear matters referred to it by the Attorney-General in his or her fulfillment of the constitutional obligation ‘to take all action necessary for the upholding and protection of the Constitution.’ The Supreme Court, therefore, functions both as a court of last resort and as the equivalent of a constitutional court.
Three Judges sit on each appeal, with the three permanent Namibian Judges supplemented by Acting Judges from South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in order to ensure three judges hear every matter. Constitutional, criminal, and commercial matters are all the order of the day. Due to the comprehensive human rights provisions enshrined in Namibia’s fledgling constitution, many of the matters involve a human rights component: the right to a fair trial; the right to a family; the right to dignity and to liberty.
My own role in the Court has three main components. I prepare and proofread draft judgments, perform discrete legal research tasks on specific questions for individual Judges, and sit with the Judges each day in court and assist them with their materials. Occasionally when the air-conditioning is a little temperamental, I begin to wonder if whoever designed the heavy black robes and white bibs worn by judges and barristers all over the world envisioned their use in desert states like Namibia. It is at moments like this that I am amazed at the exportability of the English legal system and all of its accessories.
One of the most interesting aspects of the experience so far has been speaking with the Judges about their ideas regarding the role of the Court. In their view, Namibia’s top court must be modern, progressive and cognisant of developments in the world’s most advanced common law jurisdictions. Many legal questions do not find a straightforward answer in Namibian judgments, given the relative youth of the country and its law. In those circumstances, the Judges perform a crucial function in establishing foundational principles, turning to law in South Africa, Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia in order to carefully delineate what they consider to be the most correct legal path. SAJAP assists Judges in this important task through the provision of interns whose employment in ordinary circumstances would be prohibitively expensive to the Court. Simultaneously, interns have the opportunity to learn from members of the Namibian judiciary, leaders in their profession and official guardians of a fair and impartial court. I am indebted to OPBP, SAJAP’s coordinators, Professor Fredman and Professor Endicott for their invaluable support – thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity.
If your organisation would benefit from hosting an intern from the University of Oxford, or you are an individual or organisation wishing to make a donation to OPBP, please click here to find out more about the OPBP Internship Programme or for details on how to support OPBP’s work.