Essay by Warren Binford

The Angel Taxi Service

The wheels touched down on the runway.  My heart raced.  Forty-three hours had passed since we pulled out of our driveway in Salem.  I looked out the window for my first glimpse of Africa.  My expectations were great.  My fears were even greater.  The sun was rising in Cape Town, and I squinted.

Two years had passed since I first noted the emerging pattern in my research.  Many of the most exciting cases in children’s rights were being issued by African courts.  The most progressive constitutions in the world when it came to children’s rights were African.  Many of the world’s leading child advocates were also African:   Graça Machel, Ann Skelton, Julia Sloth-Nielsen, Benyam Mezmur, and others.  Africa had the first regional treaty on children’s rights, which was even more progressive than the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Children’s legislation was being enacted in one place or another on the continent on a near constant basis.  I was finding it hard to keep up. 

Could it be that Africa with all of its seemingly intractable problems—poverty, AIDS, corruption, armed conflicts, famine, droughts, child marriage, refugees, child labor, female genital mutilation, illiteracy—was actually a world leader when it came to advancing children’s rights?  From 10,000 miles away, it appeared to be. So I applied for a Fulbright and a research sabbatical and boarded a plane bound for South Africa, the epicenter of the children’s rights movement in Africa.

Walking through Cape Town International Airport, I was struck immediately by the wealth and modernity displayed.  Within an hour, we had packed our rental car and were zipping down the N2 when we saw them:  thousands and thousands of corrugated metal shacks.  “What are they?” our nine-year-old daughter asked.  “Townships,” I answered.  “This is where the black people live.”  The car was silent.

How was it that we could be driving on a highway as well-built as any in the U.S. or Europe surrounded by BMWs and Mercedes Benzes, while steps away hundreds of thousands of black people were living in abject poverty?  Nearly twenty years have passed since apartheid ended and yet South Africa remains one of the most racially divided and economically unequal countries on the planet.  A white child born in South Africa will likely live into his 70s, while a black child will be lucky to live into his 50s.  AIDS, poverty, and discrimination conspire to decimate the lives of black children.  How could this be in the country of Nelson Mandela, the country with the most progressive constitution in the world?

As the months passed, we saw and visited many more townships, orphanages, and schools, but it was our “Angel Taxi Service” where we best learned the lives that continue unaffected by the laws of the new South Africa.

Our Angel Taxi Service referred to the hundreds of rides my husband and I gave black and colored South Africans walking along miles of roads and highways trying to find or keep jobs that pay just a few dollars a day so that they could support their families.  We heard tales of hope, determination, discrimination, poverty, pain, death, violence, corruption, love, and, most often, the children that inspired them.  What we never heard talk of was laws.

Six months later, we drove down the N2 towards the airport for our return flight back to the U.S.  As we drove past the metal shacks that had silenced us in the hours after our arrival, I reflected on the work I had done here.  The biggest contribution I made was probably not legal at all.  Rather, our Angel Taxi Service might have helped a mother to buy milk for her baby, a father to keep a job, or a grandmother to earn enough money for another week’s rent for the shack where she lived with her orphaned grandchildren. 

Surprisingly, I was completely at peace with my realization.  After all, how much do children’s rights matter without the love and protection of a family to ensure that those rights are respected?   

--Professor Warren Binford, head of Willamette’s Clinical Law Program, spent the Fall 2012 semester as a Fulbright Scholar in Africa, teaching and researching the issue of children’s rights at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa.