This profile was prepared when Ashwell Zwane was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.
The New Idea
After coming to the urban Alexandra Township from the rural Transkei in the 1940s, the young Nelson Mandela obtained a law degree from Wits University and, together with Oliver Tambo, set up in central Johannesburg South Africa's first firm of African lawyers. Half a century later, Ashwell Zwane and Bernert Lekalakala grew up in Alexandra Township in a period of activism and popular resistance to the apartheid system that held "jailed-for-life" Nelson Mandela to be its leader. After periods of detention for their politics, Ash and Ben obtained law degrees from Wits University. Now, like Nelson Mandela before them, Ash and Ben are pioneering the way forward for South Africa's legal profession. They are establishing the country's first township-based full-service legal practice. They are piloting their practice in Alexandra. "Where people do not understand the legal system, or know their rights, it does not make much sense to speak of 'due process' or even 'the rule of law,'" notes Ash, "For this reason our Centre must provide an unusually wide range of services, from popular legal rights education to mediation to more conventional legal advice and litigation services." Their vision is innovative and original in several respects. First, their intention is to render the full range of lawyers' services to ordinary citizens living in the townships. Before this, only services specializing in human rights or paralegal advice were marketed directly in the townships. The service departs from the traditional lawyers' practice by situating itself as a resource for other community organizations, including schools where Ash and Ben organize legal and rights education courses and actively recruit student volunteers to work in the Centre. Finally, Ash and Ben have succeeded in getting their pilot Centre certified for purposes of providing law graduates with their "articles," the final step in the lawyer's qualification. Thus, the Centre offers the means for law graduates to do their articles while providing a service to their communities and thereby enhancing the credibility of the legal profession at a grassroots level.