Postings From Ruth Cowan - 2010

Ruth Cowan
Ruth B. Cowan
, Creator and Executive Producer

December 20, 2010

An invitation to participate in a conference on Law, Culture and Constitutionalism, scheduled for December 10th & 11, drew me back to South Africa. My assignment was to chair a panel on social justice lawyering—a subject about which I had written some articles.

I was joyful at the prospect of returning to South Africa—joyful at engaging around rule of law issues that interest me greatly and at being again with some of the people I had come to know and admire. Thandabantu Nhlapo, now Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (but in Washington at the South African Embassy when we first met), Shameela Seedat, at IDASA when we met; and former Constitutional Court Justice Kate O’Regan were three of the people at the conference who had been more than important to me when I ventured into South Africa. They epitomize the generosity and warm welcome so many South Africans extended to me.

conferencePenelope Andrews, a South African legal scholar, currently an associate dean at the City University of New York Law School and now and always a force of nature, convened the conference. She brought together about fifty participants from several countries. We stayed together as a group—first at the University of Cape Town Law School and then at the University of Stellenbosch Law School. This format of all present for all of the presentations transformed the conference into a two-day colloquium.

A major purpose of our meetings was to honor Martin Chanock—his scholarship on customary law, among other subjects, has been an important influence to many of us there. Early in our meetings, Martin claimed embarrassment at the repeated expressions of appreciation for him and for his work. When he and I were riding to the airport at the conclusion of the two days, he said he now feared he would soon be suffering from something that should be included as a new psychological malady—namely, praise deficit disorder.

In addition to the panel presentations and discussions, Penny scheduled moments to enjoy just being together. One of those “moments” was a party hosted by Michael Osborne at his Camps Bay house—with table mountain at the back and the ocean in front. Michael, an advocate in South Africa who had worked a number of years in New York, commented he’d have to be Donald Trump to live in a comparable house in New York. Watching the sunset with its reflection in the ocean’s waters was—as sunsets tend to be everywhere—precious and memorable.

Preceding December 10 and December 11, I enjoyed a number of days in Johannesburg and Cape Town. During those days I met with Courting Justice’s agent and distributor. My purpose was to arrange for Courting Justice to be made available without charge. I then met with the Ford Foundation representative who had supported the filming project at its outset. This time I was seeking the support needed for the film’s complimentary distribution so that Courting Justice could reach schools, townships and rural communities. The response was positive.

While in Johannesburg, I also met with Casey Bridges, the director of an about to be launched Boys & Girl Clubs of South Africa—B&GCSA. Early in my time in South Africa, I was made aware of the absence of, and the pressing need for, after school activities. I knew about the outstanding work of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America—B&GCA—and saw that as a model for South Africa. The B&GCA is restricted by its charter to work in the United States and in places outside the United States—such as military bases, where the United States has jurisdiction. That seemed to end a good idea. But, shortly before leaving for South Africa this time, I learned that one of the U.S. board members was funding the establishment of the B&GCSA and I was given contact information for Casey. He and I corresponded and then we met in Johannesburg. His plan was to start without fan fare in Soweto, a black township of some two million people. Justice Masipa, who is featured in Courting Justice, has deep roots in Soweto. She comments in the film about the lack of activities for teenagers. I was able to reach her in her chambers on Sunday—after church. We met—what a wonderful reunion!. She was enthusiastic about the B&GCSA start up in Soweto and was eager to help Casey launch a success.

I left the next day, buoyed by my meeting with Judge Masipa—onto Cape Town. My first evening there I had dinner with Norman Levy—another of South Africa’s best. Norman had been a defendant in the 1956 treason trial—which lasted for five years. He and his co defendants were not convicted then. But, in 1963 he and nine other anti-apartheid leaders—including Nelson Mandela, were charged with sabotage and planning guerilla warfare. They were convicted in 1964 and sentenced to Robben Island. After completing his prison term, he lived in exile in London, still engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle. Norman has completed his memoir—it will be released in March. A number of us in New York are planning a gathering for him to talk about his book when he will be in New York in May.

A few of my days in Cape Town were with Annette Fatti. She has agreed to promote the distribution of Courting Justice. There are many organizations that want to show the film and Annette will follow up with them. She will also coordinate a pilot education program, built around Courting Justice. Through emailing and skyping the program will link students in two New York City schools with counterparts in two Cape Town schools. The pilot is to begin in January.

My best conversations with Annette were in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens—my favorite place when I am in Cape Town. December is summer and the flowers were magnificent.

Much was accomplished during this visit—including dinner parties, theater and the pleasure of being in South Africa with good people. I shall see many of these good people in New York—one benefit of living in New York is that many of my South African friends and acquaintances come here. When we say “good bye” we know we mean “until we again meet.”

October 16, 2010

Being in South Africa, as always, was interesting and energizing. I needed that energizing because during the ten days I visited four provinces, leaving some mornings before 5 AM and returning late.

I traveled with five now new best friends, all congenial. There was a lot of laughter. We were mobilized by Shared Interest,  a US-based organization, partnering with a South Africa organization, Thembani. Their mission is economic development in South Africa by guaranteeing loans to small businesses. The six of us visited the businesses which benefited from the loan guarantees and a few that were interested in obtaining a guarantee. The businesses visited included The Kuyasha Fund in Cape Town which itself gives loans for home improvements. We visited recipients of Kuyasha’s loans in  Khayelitsha, one of the well known black townships. Another business was a mushroom farm in Krugersdorp. Both businesses revealed world class management. One of the proposals for a new loan was to establish what would amount to a parallel banking system to service clients who want less than multimillion rand loans. This would fill a void, since the big four banks are reluctant to give other than huge loans, even with guarantees.

Three in the Shared Interest troupe had not been to South Africa before—so, a good deal of sightseeing was included. We went to a church service in Soweto, visited the Constitutional Court, went to museums and attended  Nothin But the Truth at the Market Theatre famous for its important contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. After the performance we waylayed  John Kani, the playwright/lead actor. We had a wonderful conversation about the play, during which we learned he was scheduling most of the performances for school children as his contribution toward educating the young generation about the struggle.

I left my new friends from time to time to meet with the agents for Courting Justice, and with Norman Levy and Annette Fatti.  Norman was a defendant in the first treason trials in South Africa in 1956. The trial continued for five years, during which the death penalty hung over the defendants’ heads-- in the end all were acquitted. Norman was later charged with high treason, was convicted  and was  imprisoned on Robben Island.  He and I met in New York when he came to  a screening of Courting Justice. He stood up to declare that the film had to be shown in every township in South Africa. When he returned home, he proposed screenings to a number of people. As a result of his efforts, it will be shown in November at a big event hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution and at other venues, probably in January in three or four different cities. Norman and I had a memorable dinner one evening.

Annette is another fan of Courting Justice. She is a teacher who has shown the film to over 68 classes. I had corresponded with her about a project that a retired NYC school principal is promoting. The project would use Courting Justice as the starting point for motivating middle school and high school students to envision full, meaningful futures for themselves. The project would link two schools in New York City with two schools in South Africa. I had asked Annette if she would  coordinate the project in South Africa—she was interested.  In Cape Town, she gave me the present of a full day. We talked about the school project and so much more. We went to Guguletu, another well known township. She had friends there who took us on a tour. While Guguletu includes some fine houses, it also includes hostels in which three families are housed in a room smaller than my kitchen. The adults sleep on the three beds and the children sleep on the floor. I deplore “poverty tourism” but it is sobering. Then, in sharp contrast, we went to the gardens at Kirstenbosch. We ate in the gardens—now on my short list of memorable meals. Everything was in bloom and there were swaths of colors which I can still see in my mind’s eye. For  gardeners like Annette and me, it was an emotional time.

On my plane ride to South Africa, I sat next to Zandile Mdhladhla. She is the CEO of the Moral Regeneration Movement and was interested in showing Courting Justice in her programs throughout the country. My return trip from South Africa was rerouted. South African Airways had overbooked and had bumped me. I was rerouted through London. This added an extra three hours to an already long trip and I was unhappy about the change. On a check point at Heathrow I chatted with the man in line with me, David McQuoid-Mason. David, I learned is a human rights law professor who heads Street Law, teaching students around the world about human rights law. I also learned he mentored my friend—she had worked as his secretary; he encouraged her to go to law school; a few years ago she was short listed for an appointment to the Constitutional Court; and is now Assoc Dean at a law school in the US.  David, too, wants to use Courting Justice in his program. Meeting David was a strong antidote to the agitation about being rerouted.  The trip to and from seemed to start and end with new screenings for Courting Justice.

Two days after returning to New York (not yet unpacked, since my luggage was lost), I left for a meeting in Boston. As a result, I feel I am just now returned from my travels, happy, as always, to be  home.

Read 2011 Postings:

August 27, 2011 - Youth Making Movies