“If you are to free yourselves you must break the chains of oppression yourselves. Only then can we express our dignity, only when we have liberated ourselves can we cooperate with other groups. Any acceptance of humiliation, indignity or insult is acceptance of inferiority.” — Winnie Madikizela-Mandela




Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa

“I would like to see a South Africa where poverty is not criminalised and poor people are not rendered invisible. I would like South Africa to look like a safe place for young girls and women,” says Khululiwe Bhengu, 31, a senior attorney at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI). She has spent about a decade helping people who are financially excluded from accessing legal services in her pursuit of justice for the homeless. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, she continued working with vulnerable people in the inner city. Khululiwe has forged links with community groups in the inner city buildings to assess their needs and respond effectively through litigation or advocacy for them. Her achievements in this area include saving the home of 107 waste reclaimers facing eviction by a private landowner in Midrand, successfully fighting the eviction of informal traders in the Johannesburg PRASA transport terminal as well as advocating for various issues affecting indigent persons such as informal trade, waste reclaiming, and housing rights. This is part of her passion for spatial, economic and environmental justice that is accessible to the everyday person. Most recently, Khululiwe focuses her efforts on ensuring emergency accommodation centres are fit for occupation by children and the elderly.

  • Master’s in International Law (LLM) and LLB, University of Witwatersrand (Wits)
  • Certificates in Procurement Law and Human Rights in the workplace, Mandela Institute, Wits 
  • Certificate in Women’s Rights in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

  • Lead attorney in the matter of Residents of Industry House v The Minister of Police and others which went all the way to the Constitutional Court with a successful outcome declaring section 13(7) of the SAPS Act unconstitutional.
  • I also started from scratch an eviction case in the matter of Ryckloff v Bonkolo, which resulted in a high court order that recognised the waste reclaimers’ right to make a living where they stay. 

I have also been involved in some of the constitutional court’s landmark cases in eviction law jurisprudence, such as the matter of Occupier of Berea v De Wet and Nomsa Dladla v City of Johannesburg.

When I was eight, my siblings and I ran after a water truck with 10-litre buckets hoping to catch the truck and get water because we did not have running taps in the informal settlement where I grew up in. It was at this moment that I realised the indignity that comes with poverty and not being able to access basic services. I knew at this moment that I needed to work hard to get my family out of poverty and to also be an advocate for the rights of vulnerable people who are often rendered invisible because of their economic status. As an 8 year old there’s nothing I had done to find myself in such a position and I wanted to grow up and do my best so that other young girls growing up in informal settlements do not find themselves in such a situation.

I would hug her. I would tell her that the tears she shed, and the days spent learning how to advocate for others were not in vain. That her sacrifices have given vast numbers of people a home, a dignified existence, and a platform to be heard. When I was younger, I did not think the choice to study law would be meaningful for my society, but years later I see that the girl I once was became the woman I now am. So I would tell her to never stop fighting, to be undeterred, to be persistent in being the voice for justice that she never had.

My ideal South Africa in five years time is one in which the street trader can sell her goods with no fear of victimisation, where the woman in waste reclaiming can push her trolley at any time of day and fear no crime, where the boy living in emergency accommodation fears neither eviction nor a lack of access to basic services. My desire is to see the country become a place where a dignified existence is not reserved only for the rich. In essence, I would like to see a South Africa where poverty is not criminalised and poor people are not rendered invisible. I would like South Africa to look like a safe place for young girls and women.

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