Powering the Fight for Human Rights Through Digital Collaboration


As much as we like to think human rights are a given, that’s far from the case in today’s world. News headlines remind us every day that human rights are constantly under threat. They have to be protected, and the champions doing the hard work day in and day out need access to all the resources they can get. The stakes are incredibly high.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is one of many organizations fighting for human rights in South Africa, but we are special in that we were established by an act of parliament and we draw our mandate from our country’s constitution. That mandate is threefold. 

First, we promote awareness to establish a culture of human rights in South Africa. Second, we protect human rights by investigating and trying violations. Unlike most human rights organizations, we have special powers under the constitution, including: powers of search and seizure; powers of subpoena; and the power to sue in any court in the commission’s name on behalf of citizens of the country. Third, we observe, assess, and report on how human rights are being realized in South Africa. We also report to the UN General Assembly on how South Africa meets its international human rights obligations. It is a criminal offense to undermine the commission’s work.

Though we are independent, we are funded by the state, so our services are free of charge, and we are accountable to parliament. Today, we have about 200 staff and an office in every province. Each office has researchers, lawyers who litigate and mediate on human rights violations, and advocacy officers who run workshops on human rights issues.

This is a far cry from how the commission began. At its founding 24 years ago, SAHRC started with nothing. I would know—I was there. We didn’t have a single computer, so we had to bring our own to work. From those early days, the organization has grown to one of the leading state institutions in the country, as well as becoming a major presence in Africa and in human rights conversations globally. 

We have had our ups and downs as an institution, but I am proud of where we began and where we are now. I’ve had my own journey within the organization. For many years, I was head of research, mainly responsible for monitoring economic and social rights and access to information, before I became chief executive officer in 2005. After a few years away, I returned again as CEO in 2017. SAHRC will celebrate our 25th anniversary in October 2020. 

Frustrated with Existing Collaboration Solutions

While SAHRC has made great strides in our fight for human rights, earlier this year we saw how much our conferencing system lagged behind. We used a product from another service provider for our bureau conferencing meetings to connect with our nine provincial offices, but we always had issues. The system would crash constantly and it was also very conference room-centric, which forced most of us to physically occupy one space. 

When COVID-19 began, everyone had to work remotely, which caused a number of issues with our service provider. I later learned that product of the service provider did have remote capabilities, but we not adequately advised about this and hence it was not fully utilized. I was also unhappy about the level of service and support in general, and the fact that they didn’t fully explain their remote option pushed me over the edge.

Around the same time that South Africa went into lockdown, our contract was scheduled to expire. I refused to renew our contract with the service provider, due to past experiences with the product. It was the right decision, but it also left us with a big gap in service at a precarious time.  

No Platform + Pandemic = Urgency

We’d started looking at other collaboration solutions when staff had to go remote, but that search became more urgent when our contract ran out with the then service provider and we had no backup. I stayed up some nights until 2 a.m. trying to find a service provider, but nothing seemed to fit our needs. 

We had multiple consultations with service providers, including Microsoft, but MS Teams was going to take some time to set up. In the early days of the pandemic, the free version of Zoom was a popular option, but I was hesitant because of the security concerns around the platform. When a South African parliament meeting using the more secure version of Zoom was hacked, I couldn’t consider it any more. I discouraged the usage of Zoom from SAHRC because of the sensitive nature of our work. 

That’s when I thought back to a conference we had held shortly before the lockdown began. The conference was about the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on human rights. Part of the program included inviting a number of service providers as well as young South African IT entrepreneurs to present their work. Among the attendees was a company called Perfection ICT, who’d shared information about various Cisco solutions. I had already met them face-to-face, and figured it was worth reaching out to them again.

Not only did we not have a service provider, but we were completely clueless about the options that existed for collaboration solutions. We had never heard of a lot of the available products, so when I called Perfection ICT, I had a lot of questions. They suggested a Cisco product called Webex, and arranged for Cisco to give us a trial run the next day. 

In contrast to what I learned about Zoom’s security, I came to learn that Cisco is quite safe. And whereas it would take a long time to set up Microsoft Teams, Cisco was very quick. From that trial run, we realized that Webex seamlessly filled our communication gap. From there, Perfection ICT set up our training and licensing, which left our IT team free to focus on the work of getting everyone at the commission set up to work from home. 

A Partner with Teeth

Webex allows us to connect to meetings from anywhere in the country, even anywhere in the world. Since we began using Webex at the beginning of April, I have been in almost daily meetings—and so have the commission’s 200 staff members—and I’ve been to the office fewer than five times. All our meetings, including our legal hearings, are now done remotely through Webex. 

We still feel it’s unsafe for people to work in the office, so we have made the decision that every staff member should have a laptop. We are now training our IT people as administrators, though, to be honest, I find Webex quite easy to use even as a non-administrator. It’s beautiful to be able to set up a meeting with someone outside the organization by just sharing a link with them. 

There’s something beautiful about setting up a meeting simply by sharing a link.

We also bought Webex Events, which allows us to host webinars. We’ve used it three times now: The first time was in the lead-up to our June 16 event. June 16 is an important day in the South African calendar as we commemorate the youth-led Soweto Uprising against the apartheid government. The day before our event, we realized we urgently needed a way for all commission staff to participate. We contacted Perfection ICT, and within a few minutes of explaining the issue to them, Cisco provided us with 200 trials of Webex Events. 

That responsiveness was impressive, and the product itself performed much better than the other solutions I’ve used when I’ve participated in webinars hosted by outside parties. We’ve subsequently used it for a webinar on the National Preventative Mechanism, which is a protocol against torture. We are now planning our 25th-anniversary event for October, and due to COVID-19, it will likely be in a webinar format. We’re even planning a virtual conference for early December, so I see us getting a lot of use out of Webex Events by the end of the year. 

Looking to the Future: Security, Digitizing, and Automation

Apart from our use of Webex, our partnership with Perfection ICT allows us to modernize the commission in other ways.

One of these is by increasing our cybersecurity safeguards. We receive about 12,000 human rights complaints a year, which results in holding a massive amount of South Africans’ sensitive, personal information. Keeping that information secure is of utmost concern. Additionally, next year we are required to comply with the Protection of Personal Information Act, which recently came into effect. Our systems will be inspected to ensure that we are adequately protecting personal information under the Act, which is why we’re getting the ball rolling now. 

We will likely have to go to tender for a security solution, but it’s nice to be able to call a partner, relay our needs, and have them walk us through the available solutions. Whatever our problem, they help us navigate it. We speak with Leonora Martins at Perfection ICT all the time, and it’s much better than me staying up nights, trying to research a solution myself. 

When dealing with massive amounts of sensitive information, you can’t assume your solutions are good enough. Get the best infrastructure in place to keep your information secure.

We’re also exploring further solutions that will enable us to go fully digital. Our conference in March helped us decide to appoint a chief information officer as a permanent post at the commission, to help us move into the fourth industrial revolution. The CTO’s tasks will include fully digitizing and automating our systems. It’s an idea we were toying with for some time, and now it seems possible. 

People used to think the idea of everyone in the organization having their own laptop was crazy, but the pandemic made that a necessity. Now, with everyone on the commission accessing information from wherever they are, the idea of going fully digital has become a possibility. It all starts with opening up that conversation to see what is available.  

Without Perfection ICT and Webex, we would have been dead in the water. The commission is highly indebted to Cisco and Ms. Martins’ company. I only wish I had come across Cisco much earlier. Now, I recommend Webex to my friends who find their organization facing similar challenges. 

The struggle for human rights is long and arduous. As the people on the front lines, it’s good to know our virtual meetings and connections don’t have to be.