Thandiwe Matthews

Senior Legal Officer, SAHRC

Carrying on the family tradition of human rights activisim, Thandiwe Matthews is an attorney dedicated to helping make South Africa’s theoretical human rights framework a reality.

“My grandfather is the poet, novelist, writer and political prisoner James Matthews. Addressing social injustice and human rights issues were part of my upbringing,”  she says.

Thirty-year-old Matthews, now a senior legal officer at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), holds two undergraduate degrees – a bachelor of social sciences and a bachelor of law from the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand – and recently completed a master’s in development studies, specialising in human rights, development and social justice at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

Although South Africa is celebrating 20 years of democracy, inequalities and injustices prevail, says Matthews. Her work at the Johannesburg offices of the SAHRC entails assessing individual complaints, identifying common trends and the causes of those injustices, and finding ways to address them at a national level.

“In South Africa today, human rights violations still occur daily through a lack of service delivery, gender-based violence, and the fact that institutions of justice still don’t serve everyone – be it because they are too far removed from communities, or because people simply cannot afford litigation,” she says.

“South Africa has huge successes to celebrate, but the reality is that only a privileged few can enjoy the benefits of the new South Africa at this stage. Twenty years into democracy, we still seem to be a segregated and divided society. The middle class can choose to not see poverty, but it’s right around the corner.”

Matthews feels particularly strongly about education and human rights violations by business.

“In education, we are doing a double injustice to young learners – not only do we have huge inequality, but also the education system is not working. The entire system must be addressed,” she says.

“In business, we see situations such as Marikana arising more frequently. This calls for a change in mindset in terms of how we approach human rights.” — Tracy Burrows