Johannesburg, South Africa – It’s still early, but scores of women are already steadily filing into the Pimville Community Hall in Soweto, Johannesburg. The women fill out their details with the welcoming volunteers at the front desk, take a seat facing the stage and wait patiently.
When most of the seats are filled, Samantha Ngcolomba, a lean and energetic 33-year-old lawyer dressed in a buttoned-up white shirt and dark jeans, greets the women warmly, flitting between Sesotho, Xhosa and English. She skims over the order of proceedings for the morning and then leads a short prayer and gospel hymn. The women harmonise effortlessly. Some of them bounce small children or grandchildren gently on their laps as they sing.
Ngcolomba is the founder of Lady Liberty, a mobile legal office that she takes across various communities still relegated to the peripheries of South African society, bringing free legal information and services to some of South Africa‘s most marginalised women.
These women, old and young, routinely bear the brunt of South Africa’s vast socioeconomic disparity, and a deeply ingrained culture of gender-based violence that is clearly evident in the country’s sobering rape statistics. Roughly 150 women report being raped to the South African Police Services each day. The numbers were most recently reiterated by the brutal murder of Noluvo Swelindawo at the beginning of December.
“I think that so many women in townships and rural areas are really broken and they don’t have access to the resources that they need to fix themselves,” Ngcolomba tells Al Jazeera. “Law is one of those resources and, without it, these women are being denied a basic human right.”
Originally from Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, Ngcolomba moved to South Africa in 2003 to study law at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 2007. She did her articles at a Cape Town law firm, then went on to work on a human trafficking project under the International Organization for Migration, funded by various United Nations departments.
Afterwards, she spent a year with another Cape Town law firm before moving to Johannesburg in 2012 and started a firm of her own, which never got off the ground.
Undeterred, Ngcolomba subsequently set up and registered CSI Boutique, a corporate social responsibility advisory firm. Lady Liberty started out as a flagship project under the umbrella of CSI Boutique, and now functions as a registered nonprofit organisation.
“I hate injustice. And while I can’t solve homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, HIV and Aids and so on, I can make some difference in the human rights space, which is both my passion and qualification,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Lady Liberty also looks to tackle what Ngcolomba believes is a dysfunctional South African pro bono system – while legislation states that it is mandatory for all lawyers in South Africa to do 20 to 24 hours of pro bono work a year, Ngcolomba says that this is not happening in practice:
“The compulsory pro bono hours are not properly policed. People get away with not helping anyone. There are no repercussions. The legal resource does not meet the immense need,” she claims. Ngcolomba says she created Lady Liberty to “both literally and figuratively cover this gap”.
Until recently, Ngcolomba was driving all over Johannesburg’s townships assisting women on her own. It was physically and emotionally exhausting work, and Ngcolomba admits that she was sometimes ill-equipped to deal with the levels of demand.
But Ngcolomba is now steadily establishing a growing network of lawyers from which she looks to leverage the mandatory pro bono hours for assistance with her legal roadshows. She then places attendees with a specific professional lawyer to take their cases forward beyond the roadshows whenever necessary, also on a pro bono basis.
Since its inception in 2014, Lady Liberty has already reached about 1,500 women across seven different communities. Ngcolomba aims to increase the number of women reached by Lady Liberty to 5,000 within the next five years. A new interactive Lady Liberty app is due to launch in January 2017, and Ngcolomba hopes that this will dramatically expand Lady Liberty’s reach across South Africa, and eventually across Africa.
After the hymn, the women in Pimville Community Hall in Soweto are split into smaller groups, depending on their needs.
There are six circles of plastic chairs around the edge of the large hall, each labelled with a hand-scrawled paper sign: domestic violence, marriage, maintenance, housing, wills, divorce.
At each station, professional Johannesburg lawyers who have volunteered their pro bono hours to Lady Liberty assist the women with their various queries and concerns, listening intently and then giving informed legal advice.
Occasionally, a lawyer would have to leave the hall for a moment, just to cry.
Palesa Lepule, 25, is a lawyer working for Norton Rose Attorneys in Sandton, a particularly affluent area of downtown Johannesburg. Lepule says she has a passionate interest in legal issues concerning women and children and volunteers with the organisation.
“The South African legal system is not accessible to those who need it most,” Lepule says. “A lot of people don’t have the transport or means to get legal services, so the mobility of Lady Liberty is critical – now we’re going to them. It is beginning to break down barriers of access. It’s a very necessary shift.”
Among the women who have come to seek assistance from the lawyers is Dlamini*, 55, who has for years been battling for custody of her 12-year-old granddaughter. Dlamini says that her daughter, a single mother, died in 2007 and that she subsequently took care of her child with learning disabilities.
Dlamini claims that after a family feud in 2012, her granddaughter was taken away from her by social workers without prior consultation or notification and placed in the custody of an abusive male relative. She says she has been unable to establish any contact with the child since and does not even know where she is.
Among other legal documents, Dlamini has brought with her to the roadshow the court order granting her custody of her granddaughter. “Before I found Lady Liberty, wherever I went, no one would help me get her back,” she tells Al Jazeera.
At the other side of the hall, Rachel Dipuwo, 56, waits to speak to the lawyer allocated to divorce cases.
Dipuwo is a divorced grandmother who has come to Pimville to seek help with obtaining child maintenance payments from her recently deceased ex-husband’s provident fund. She says she had paid about $220 to a local lawyer to help her, but that he had “done nothing” to date and is no longer answering her calls.
Dipuwo heard about Lady Liberty in an interview with Ngcolomba on local radio and decided to travel across Soweto to attend the roadshow.
“Before, we women didn’t have this power,” she says. “But today, because of Lady Liberty, we are learning how to raise our voices.”
Other women at the Pimville roadshow come with more aspirational aims. Cristina Seyabelo, 58, is seeking legal insight into how to start her own business as a motivational speaker, with a particular focus on overcoming the challenges of living with albinism.
“What I’ve seen today is the way that people can come together and support each other. We are not charity cases. We don’t want to be given something. We want to learn how to do things for ourselves,” Seyabelo says.
Motivated by a similar desire, Tholakele Dube, 23, has come to Pimville with a view to furthering her work with Lifeline, where she provides counselling and support to a number of women suffering from the trauma of domestic violence and rape.
“We have a lot of problems with gender violence in our communities. But many of our clients don’t have a lot of access to information that they need to do anything about it. They are scared of going to court or to the police station. We are here to learn from Lady Liberty, because if we have knowledge and information about the legal rights of women we work with it can help us to empower them so that they can speak up,” Dube says.
At around 1pm, the roadshow slowly winds down, and the women are served sandwiches and drinks before they make their way back to their homes across the substantial sprawl of Soweto.
A tired Ngcolomba expresses mixed feelings about the event.
“Women leave here empowered. And just mere information can help them say, ‘Actually, I can do this because this is what the law affords me’. So, then, there is a lot of fighting that they can do on their own with that information. But I’d always love to see more women because I know there are a lot more women who need these services.”
Ngcolomba says that access remains an issue for many; one woman who had attended the Pimville roadshow had taken three different minibus taxis to get there.
But fear is also a major obstacle to Lady Liberty’s work. “Husbands will forbid their wives from attending,” Ngcolomba says. “Even those that do attend are often seriously fearful of the repercussions from their husbands.”
She recounts an incident at a previous roadshow in Yeoville where local men went so far as to tear up Lady Liberty flyers in the faces of volunteers and loitered outside the premises to disrupt proceedings and try to prevent women from entering.
But Ngcolomba says this merely steeled her resolve to continue trying to help the women in that area.
“I’m not trying to be a hero,” she says matter-of-factly, “I’m just trying to solve problems.”
*Name changed for privacy.