Stern portraits of former mayors gazed upon hundreds of law students and academics from across Africa dressed in the colourful traditional attire of the continent while eating and drinking in the City Hall on Monday evening.
The pan-African gathering below the images of past generations of white male authority marked the opening of the 22cnd African Rights Moot Court competition which sees students from 55 universities across 25 African countries compete in the continent’s largest human rights education initiative this week.
It is also the first time the African Moot Court, hosted this year by the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria, is being held in Cape Town.
Until the end of the competition on September 8, aspiring human rights lawyers will grapple with a hypothetical case between the Government of Kalaharia and Children of Africa Now in which the rights of a particular refugee child appear to be violated by the Kalaharia state’s actions.
The Moot Court Competition sees a male and female student in each university team argue their cases before their human rights professor who acts as judge in the preliminary rounds.
The rounds are held in English, French and Portuguese, with the best teams from each language category advancing to the final round.
There, with simultaneous interpretation, students argue before a bench of prominent African and international human rights lawyers.
The Moot, while important for establishing and growing networks among human rights lawyers and contact between African universities, especially aims to support the work of the African Commission on Human and People’s rights as students principally rely on the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in preparing their arguments, and on the jurisprudence of the Commission
Addressing the opening at the City Hall, Assistant Director of the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, Norman Taku, said the Moot was the educational event with “the widest reach and broadest scope in Africa”.
Since the first Moot in 1991, the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights had been established in 2006 and had recently handed down its first decision (in 2009).
This, said Taku, was the development of original African jurisprudence to which Moot participants were contributing.
He noted the participation this year of a team from the University of Alexandra in Egypt while their country was in “the forefront” of change and remarked how the nature of the Moot saw a Rwandan team comprising a Hutu and Tutsi student working together when he participated as a student in 1995, one year after the Rwandan genocide.
“Together all of us are changing our continent one young lawyer at a time,” he said.
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, in her address, said lawyers and judges were needed to uphold the law, champion human rights and make the constitution a “living document”.
The principal of all being equal before the law “must be protected”, she said, as in South Africa, “increasingly, people of status and wealth have better access to the law than the poor and vulnerable who don’t have access to legal representation”.
“Great things” could be accomplished in Africa if young people used law as an “agent for change”.
This year the competition also commemorates the 20th anniversary of the South African Interim Constitution, in which the Faculty of Law at UWC played a seminal role and to this end, a one-day international conference on Constitution-Making in Africa will be held at UWC on Friday, September 6. – Steve Kretzmann