Encounters of a Justice Desk hero

Jessica Dewhurst, the Justice Desk Hero.

Some stories speak for themselves. The beauty of these stories lies in their rawness and authenticity. These stories are the stories that make you feel, but more importantly inspire you to act.
Such a story finds itself on the pages of this magazine and offers insight into the complex nature of the human rights and social justice field. We had the opportunity to hear a first-hand account from the Executive Director and founder, of the human rights organisation known as The Justice Desk, Jessica Dewhurst.
Below is an extract from an interview on 18 July 2018 in which she shares some of her personal encounters with injustice and the importance of promoting human rights for all.

“The Justice Desk is an award-winning human rights organisation which operates in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As an organisation, we offer our support, expertise and educational materials to various groups across the globe. We educate, advocate for and equip youth, vulnerable groups, civil society, and governments in human rights, justice and advocacy. We work primarily in township areas and vulnerable communities, empowering and equipping them with the necessary skills and platforms to lead their own change.

We believe that by empowering ordinary people to understand and defend their Human Rights, they can transform society in a sustainable way and create a more just and equal world. In four years we have directly impacted the lives of 23,000 people, and indirectly, over 60,000 people. We have four departments and 17 projects which run across our three countries.

One of these projects is called The Umoya Project. Its purpose is to advocate and care for the rights of differently-abled individuals, as well as to bridge boundaries between people kept apart by society. It gives a platform for people to break through those boundaries and build meaningful relationships.

The sisters at the home in which we work take in anyone who needs a place to stay. In townships there are people who abandon differently-abled individuals and the elderly because they don’t have the expertise or finances to support them.

There was one example that stands out for me and serves as a constant reminder of the importance of the work we do. An elderly lady who was both deaf and blind was left holding onto a fence in the middle of the night because someone came and dropped her off while they ran away. This illustrates, in a really shocking way, the way society abandons the elderly and differently-abled.

This is why we run projects like The Umoya project. We take in people who have been abandoned by society, hospitals, government, everyone, including their own families. We also take in people who need protection. We believe everyone has a right to life, and for those who are elderly or sick, we believe that they have the right to die peacefully while loved, warm and surrounded by people who care. Human rights are at the core of everything we do at the Justice Desk.

There was once a gang member from the local community who was sadly dying of complications with TB and AIDS. He was very thin and weak when he came into the project. Some community members were angry and said we shouldn’t have taken him in because of how many people he had killed, and although we understood their feelings and concern, the sisters felt that it was necessary for us to take him in.

We believe in justice and the fulfillment of fundamental human rights – this means that we believe that everyone deserves to have their human rights and dignity upheld. We believe that he should have been prosecuted for his crimes, but we also recognised that his time was very limited given his health status. He needed a place where his right to die peacefully, and to be surrounded by people who would care for him as a human, would be respected. He was a human, and nothing we do should take those rights away from us. We took him in and cared for him until he passed on.

One day, I remember sitting and reading to him, he looked behind me and he smiled. When I turned around, the leader of the gang he belonged to was standing right behind me. I knew a lot about him and I remember the incredible feelings of anger I had towards this man, as the leader of this gang he had destroyed families, abused human rights, and done terrible things. I was surprised when he just looked at his brother and friend, and said to me, “As long as you guys keep doing what you are doing in this community you will be safe.”

I think he realised we believe everyone deserves fundamental human rights, but also that justice must prevail. Someone who has done something bad, committed a crime or hurt another, must be brought to justice, yes – but their rights should not be forfeited as a result. In the work that we do they realised that we don’t care who you are or what you have done. What we care about is that you are human.

We don’t believe that human rights are something someone can take away. We are all products of the society; families or countries we grew up in. How and where we are brought up will dictate the lives we will eventually live, and for many children who live in communities in which their human rights are violated each day, they will in turn be more likely to turn to a life of violence and crime. However, if they were given another choice, another option – I have no doubt they would choose differently.

Jessica donning a t-shirt of the late Nelson Mandela.

I always say that people aren’t their actions, and we are always capable of change. I learnt this through personal experience. There are those life-defining moments that really affect your outlook on life. One of these moments happened when I was eighteen years old. I was attacked by a man who eventually went to prison. It was such an intense situation, and I clearly remember everyone saying to me that ‘without this type of guy, this country would be a better place’. I remember having those thoughts going through my head on the way to court.

I remember going in there ready to see him pay for his actions, to rot in jail for the rest of his life! Thinking back, it absolutely breaks me now, not because of what I experienced, but because in that moment at the courthouse when our eyes locked, I looked at this man and I didn’t see a terrible person. I saw a human, I saw my brother, I saw someone I totally loved with all my heart. He didn’t choose to be a criminal, he didn’t choose to hurt people.

He was hungry, starving, and he’d been treated horribly his entire life. He never had a father, his mother died when he was 13, and he had to protect himself as a child. He was a refugee, he was kicked out of his home onto the streets the moment his mother died, and he had gangs constantly pressurising him to join them. He realised once that his teacher didn’t even know who he was, so he didn’t go to school and no one even noticed that he wasn’t even there.

He would beg every single day, cold, wet and sick, and his dignity would be stripped away each day. He would be kicked out of clinics because he didn’t have any paper work or an ID. He was tired, sick and he smelt bad. And eventually, one day, he finally snapped and did something terrible, but not even once did I think he was that something terrible. His actions were the problem, not the person.

I remember wanting to hold him in my arms and cry, to apologise to him for allowing a country to exist where children can grow up in such horrible conditions. Where we can create children like him, and then blame him for it.

When it comes to human rights, it’s about the access to both resources and opportunities. If he had been given a different opportunity to live a different life, I have no doubt that he wouldn’t have picked the life he had, because no one wants to hurt other people, and no one wants to have to steal to survive. This man was put in a situation where his human rights were violated to the extent that he became a product of that violation.

We, as a society, shouldn’t have let a young boy grow up like that. Every single day we have hundreds of children like him coming out of Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Langa and many other communities struggling to survive. It’s going to be the cycle that keeps going because we are not addressing the root-causes of issues. We are putting plasters on wounds, when we should be asking “where did you cut yourself? Let’s fix it and make sure nobody cuts themselves again”. These children want to live happy, healthy and bright lives, who wouldn’t? Therefore, it is vital that we as a country focus our efforts on targeting the systemic causes of injustice in our societies, homes, families, and schools. If we get that right, we would be fixing the problem before it even exists. And that’s what justice work is, that’s what we do here at The Justice Desk.

It’s not easy. It’s going to be tough, but it is worth it, definitely. People are worth every second of it.

I think we are so scared of having to sacrifice our own lives and lifestyles that we constantly see any kind of radical talk of justice as a threat. However, we must recognise that if we truly believe in fundamental human rights, in equality, then no, it’s not just another act of discrimination or flood in Khayelitsha, it’s not just another fire, it’s not just another racial slur, rape or murder. It is your brother, or sister, or someone experiencing injustice, a person who you need to feel just as passionately about as if it was someone of your own skin colour, culture, religion or nationality.

If you had the power and the resources to uplift other people, is that not something you would consider a moral obligation as a good South African who believe in justice and equality?”