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Our History


CALS is one of South Africa's oldest public interest law organisations. It was founded by Prof. John Dugard and based at Wits University during the apartheid era when human rights groups simply did not exist. With three original staff members and funding from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the organisation made a significant impact first as an applied research centre and later as a law clinic. 

The Apartheid Years

During the apartheid era, CALS was a pioneer in the development of human rights in South Africa. Our primary goal at that time was promoting human rights through research and education. This soon expanded to include a wide range of public impact litigation.

The publication Fighting for Justice provides a detailed account of our work between 1978 and 1991. During this time, CALS was involved in crucial litigation that used the common law to fight the unfair practices of the apartheid government. We were also able to use our position as a university centre to conduct research into the government's policy and law, particularly in the area of security legislation and policing. This research informed extensive education programmes in the legal profession and beyond. 

Democracy and Change

In 1990, the ANC and other political organisations were unbanned, starting a period of political negotiations and constitution-making in South Africa. In the same year, Prof Dugard retired as Director and Professor Dennis Davis succeeded him in 1991. Professor Davis steered CALS through a new era in which members of CALS played a central role in the writing of the new constitution. 

During this time, the work of CALS diversified and it divided into several research programmes focussing on key areas of human rights. These programmes were: the Aids Law Project, the Gender Research Programme, the Land Rights Research Programme, and the Freedom of Expression Project. The Human Rights Programme became the Constitutional Programme and the Labour Programme remained. 


Building the New Democracy

After 1994, CALS was engaged in developing many new policy and legislative measures that were put in place. We were also involved in significant public impact litigation cases, bringing amicus curiae applications in many early constitutional cases. 

By 2003, considerable progress had been made in entrenching rights in policy and legislative frameworks. However, the more intractable problems of implementing these rights in the face of limited resources, insufficient state capacity and massive inequalities in distribution of wealth in South Africa, revealed the systemic problems that face our democracy and continue today. 

Human Rights

Increasingly, CALS has come to focus on issues of implementation and enforcement of human rights law. This has also generated a renewed emphasis on impact litigation, particularly in the context of socio-economic rights, gender and the rule of law.

CALS' programmes continue to leverage intellectual, legal and political skills in pursuit of human rights. Fundamental to this is CALS’ ability to engage in rigorous research as the basis for effective rights-based strategies. Equally important is its ability to build relationships with communities most affected by deprivation of rights. Relationship-building with state institutions and other civil society organisations is ongoing in the work CALS undertakes.

It is through research, advocacy and impact litigation across our five programmes that CALS aims to continue its rich tradition of ensuring respect for human rights and securing justice for all.