Human rights attorney: Section27

Umunyana Rugege

Almost everything Umunyana Rugege does puts a new spin on the caricature of a lawyer. Born in Roma, Lesotho, 34-year-old Rugege grew up wanting to be a “tree-hugger” but later refined this passion with a degree in environmental studies from the State University of New York, Buffalo. In 2002 she completed a master’s in environmental management at Cornell University before studying law at the University of Cape Town. But while many of her classmates were waiting tables on the weekends, elegant Rugege was gracing the catwalks in the fashion capitals of the world.

Following articles with Webber Wentzel, she qualified as an attorney in 2008. Rugege’s first “real” job was with a public interest organisation in New York. Her focus was on environmental issues, educating younger people and lobbying for new laws and policies. In 2008 Rugege served as a research clerk for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Where she worked on the joint case of two individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

She not only conducted research, but also took part in deliberations in the pretrial chamber.

Deciding she could best make a difference “working with a small but dynamic group of people, all dedicated to the same vision”, Rugege joined the Johannesburg law centre Section27 in 2010. Now she battles for the rights of the organisation’s eponymous section in the Constitution, specifically those relating to health care, by submitting legislative amendments to Parliament, giving legal advice and litigating where necessary. Working with legendary human rights lawyer George Bizos on a recent Constitutional Court case has been the highlight of her career.

Passionate about reading, Rugege has also founded a non-profit organisation, the Children’s Book Club, which collects and distributes books to disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

— Ian Macleod