South Africa has a vibrant and robust civil society, which is an important part of its constitutional democracy. It has been at the forefront of ensuring that the state delivers on basic human rights, such as access to water and sanitation, education, housing, and health care.

The Dullah Omar Institute is a research and advocacy organisation that was founded in 1990 to tackle issues connected to human rights and governance, based at the University of the Western Cape. Motlatsi Komote is a research and advocacy officer working on the institute's women and democracy initiative.

Here, Komote shares how her work has helped many people better participate in democracy.

You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.

My name is Motlatsi Komote and I am the youngest of three girls at home. I was born and partially raised in the Limpopo province, which is in the northern part of South Africa. I later moved to Pretoria in the Gauteng province with my siblings after our mother’s passing, when I was 7 years old. My oldest sister then had to become the primary caregiver and guardian for both me and my middle sister who, at the time, was 17 years old.

Following my childhood, which involved a lot of movement between Pretoria and Limpopo, I eventually stayed in Pretoria and I studied a bachelor of laws (or an LLB degree) at the University of Johannesburg. I studied law because I’ve always been quite passionate about people — especially young people — and I wanted to make a difference. I still want to make a difference. So, I thought the legal route was one of the greatest ways to make that difference because I knew that a lot of people needed access to legal advice, but they didn’t necessarily have it or have the money to access it. This was especially true for people in rural areas, or who come from poor and disadvantaged communities, who couldn’t afford legal services.

After my studies, I then started my first job, which was as a project coordinator for what was then known as the Constitutional Literacy and Service Initiative. They used to do a lot of work in both the Western Cape and Gauteng around teaching constitutional literacy to high school learners. We would train university students, who had a booklet that we had created, and they would go out into high schools and teach learners about certain rights, and also provide training in collaboration with the pro bono office of a legal firm. A year and a half after I had started with the Constitutional Literacy and Service Initiative, I then got my second job, which was with the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC), which meant that I moved down to Cape Town in the Western Cape. In 2018, I joined the Dullah Omar Institute as a research and advocacy officer, after a few years of working with CASAC.

The Dullah Omar Institute is at the University of the Western Cape, under the university’s law faculty. We conduct research and advocate for social justice and human rights through collaboration with other organisations, through writing research and reports, and engaging with government entities, whether it is government departments, parliament, or the executive around some of the issues that relate to legislation and human rights. The institute also has different units, such as the socio-economic rights project, the African criminal justice reform unit, the women and democracy unit (which I am a part of), as well as the multi-level government unit, which all focus on different things linked to the names of the units.

We conduct research in South Africa, as well as other parts of the African continent, and the idea is that the research reports and the advocacy we take on will inform policy where possible, and also help people engage and participate in a more meaningful way in some of the processes that often happen.

For example, if there is a piece of legislation underway, we would come forward and offer our view, share that information with other people so they can actively engage with the legislation. We’ve also done work on state-owned entities (SOEs), and I and my colleagues have previously engaged government departments around the governance issues found at state-owned entities. We’ve written many research reports about how the rot at SOEs can be fixed. However, some of the challenges we’ve faced are getting the buy-in and the political will from the government to act on some of the recommendations that we’ve made.

In terms of our advocacy, we also try to perform oversight over the provincial and national legislatures, and we do that more as the women and democracy unit that I am a part of. The Parliament Watch Project, which I am a coordinator of, is a collaboration with other organisations and takes on the work of monitoring parliament. We do this by getting monitors into parliament.

Before COVID-19, we would get people into parliament physically; we would pay for their transport so they could monitor the specific parliamentary portfolio committees that relate to their work. The monitoring would then inform the advocacy work we did. However, with COVID, it became harder to do the monitoring work because of the restrictions, and we had to think about how we could still ensure some access to legislatures. We then had to innovate, along with other civil society organisations, where we wrote to legislatures and asked them what their plans were for ensuring open public access, while physical attendance was restricted. So, instead of providing transport money like we had previously done, we then provided money for data so the monitors could attend virtually. We also insisted that monitors be in the meetings virtually as they happened, but even there, there were challenges around monitors not being able to engage with MPs or MPLs in the way they could previously, and sometimes not being able to engage at all, so we then advocated for people’s ability to better do so.

The other big challenge is often around access to information and this is most obvious when some of the legislatures have closed meetings, when those meetings are meant to be publicly accessible. When that happens, we make the necessary noise, asking why the meetings are closed and what is being discussed that the public cannot be party to.

The unit I am a part of does what we call feminist government work, where we’ve created certain indicators to assess the State of the Nation Address and manifestos of political parties during elections to find out whether our government is cognisant of what is happening to women in SA. We also want to see if the state’s strategic plans address specific issues impacting women, and where they don’t, we try and make noise about it. An example of this is the national strategic plan on gender-based violence and femicide. We look at those kinds of plans and we interrogate them using our indicators, and ask whether they say anything about women, in particular Black women, and their challenges. We use our research and advocacy to advocate for better for the groups and the issues we focus on.

At some point, I thought I would go into legal practice, but I never ended up doing my articles, and instead found myself in the NGO space from my very first job. However, once I joined the NGO space I found that I really enjoyed the work, and seeing the difference the work makes has been so satisfying for me personally. Even years later, after I had moved on from a role, people still call me and ask whether I remember them because they remembered me and how I helped or impacted them. I loved doing my previous work involving high schools and I know some of them have subsequently gone into the legal field as well. But for me, one of the most satisfying parts of this work wasn’t just imparting knowledge, but also gaining knowledge, because we also learned so much from the individuals and communities we provided training for — because communities were, and still are, always so knowledgeable about their issues, and so when you do this kind of work, you know that you will not only give, but that you will also receive.

As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu.

The 2022 In My Own Word Series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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