Manager for Lawyers for Human Rights’ Statelessness Project, Thandeka Chauke assists ‘invisible’ people

Lawyer Thandeka Chauke has dedicated her career to the quest for social justice. Picture: Supplied

Lawyer Thandeka Chauke has dedicated her career to the quest for social justice. Picture: Supplied

Published Mar 16, 2023


Pretoria - Assisting “invisible” people to become visible is no small task.

However, this is one duty that gives the manager for Lawyers for Human Rights’ Statelessness Project, Thandeka Chauke, great pleasure.

Her latest accomplishment was assisting a young man left in legal limbo because his parents never registered his birth.

Chauke and her team fought his battle in the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, which eventually ordered Home Affairs to register him as a South African citizen.

Now Tebogo Khoza can register his child under his name and fulfil his wish of marrying the mother. He can also get a job, open a bank account, and live the life of an ordinary citizen.

The Statelessness Project, which falls under the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, is literally a lifesaver to many.

Chauke says people take their citizenship of a country as a given, but this is not the case for many, who as no fault of their own, are left invisible.

“My goal, and that of the Statelessness Project, is to bring visibility to this ‘invisible’ problem. This is to protect the rights of stateless people and to accelerate government action towards the eradication of statelessness,” Chauke said.

This vibrant 31-year-old is not only a human rights lawyer but also an avid believer in social justice.

As an alumna of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship, she holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree in Economics and a Bachelor of Laws from Rhodes University.

She is pursuing a Master of Laws in International Human Rights Law at Oxford University.

She joined Lawyers for Human Rights in 2015 and started as a volunteer. She was later appointed as a law clerk in the Land and Housing Programme.

The programme provides support to vulnerable and marginalised individuals or communities on a broad range of issues, such as preventing forced and unlawful evictions, promoting land reform and restitution, and advocating dignified living conditions in informal settlements or farm communities.

“During this time, I took on a number of cases representing mine hosting communities, informal street traders, informal settlements, land claim beneficiaries, farm communities and reclaimer communities (engaged in informal recycling or waste-picking).”

Chauke said in early 2020 she came across a case of a migrant community living in an informal settlement known as “Little Zimbabwe”.

The community had become a target of repeated demolition and destruction of their homes by Metro police officers and local community members during xenophobic attacks.

“When I visited the community for a consultation, I was heartbroken. They lived in absolute destitution, in a place with no electricity, water or toilets. They lived in shacks made of cardboard and plastic.

“Even when their homes were demolished or set on fire, they would come back and rebuild them so that their children would have shelter. In as much as they were resilient, they sadly seemed resigned to their fate.”

Chauke said they told her stories of how they had suffered in their countries and come to South Africa in the hope of building better lives for their families.

They had been living in South Africa for years, but most of them had struggled to obtain documents. Many of those lucky enough to have obtained documents had either lost them during the demolition of their shacks by the authorities or their destruction in fires.

Chauke said their children were struggling to attend school or to get health care because they did not have birth certificates.

“It is at this point that I developed a keen interest in refugee and migrant rights. A few months later in that same year, I decided to join the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights.”

The Statelessness Project was established in 2011 in response to an influx of queries related to access to citizenship, birth registration and legal identity in the Refugee and Migrant Rights law clinics.

It was the first of its kind in South Africa and leads in expertise on a domestic and regional level.

Chauke explained that a stateless person was someone with no nationality or someone who is not recognised as a citizen of any country in the world. In South Africa, it is a problem that affects both South African citizens and non-citizens alike.

“It is commonly caused by lack of birth registration, gaps in citizenship laws, nationality stripping, displacement, or discrimination.

“Its effects can be devastating as it inevitably results in the denial of many basic rights: the right to education, the right to earn a living, the right to travel and freedom of movement, to the right to dignity and legal identity.”

Chauke said statelessness forced people to live on the margins of society, excluded from the social, economic or political life of the country they call home and exposed to various forms of abuse and discrimination.

“The statelessness project aims to address statelessness in South Africa by providing pro bono (free) legal aid to people affected by statelessness through our law clinics, conducting strategic litigation to drive positive law and policy reform, and engaging in advocacy initiatives to raise awareness of the legal quagmire that is statelessness.”

Chauke said their work prioritised vulnerable categories of stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness – such as women and children (especially abandoned or orphaned children), refugees and migrants and trans and gender-diverse persons.

“I am passionate about statelessness because it remains an underdeveloped area of law in South Africa. It is one of the most critical and yet ignored human rights concerns as it is often considered elusive or ‘invisible’.”

To restore dignity to the lives of people like Khoza makes the legal fight all worthwhile for Chauke.

Pretoria News