City lawyer Melene Rossouw, 32, has worked in some of the highest ranks of government and with some of the top legal minds in the country, but she believes her most important work is just beginning.
Melene wants to use her expertise to build a better society and take Score, the sports development NGO she works for in Barrack Street, to new heights.
Melene, who is from Bellville South, got her law degree in 2003 and was offered a job at a firm in Somerset West. “During the time I worked at the firm, I enrolled for my Master’s degree in law and it was then that I specialised in human rights law,” she says.
After Melene graduated, she moved to Johannesburg to work as a legal researcher for activist and former constitutional court judge Albie Sachs until he retired from the bench.
“We are still very close. He is a very philosophical and intellectual man. In fact, he was the inspiration for my thesis, which dealt with public participation within socio-economic rights in South Africa. Albie still plays a very big part in my life.”
Melene returned to Cape Town to work at the Western Cape High Court as a researcher for Judge President John Hlophe and other judges.
“Working there was significant because I was a very young legal professional, but the judges had confidence in my ability to write opinions about matters and engage with me on an array of legal matters. They also gave me the opportunity to work with them on some of the bigger cases, and I can only describe my time at the courts as awe-inspiring.”
Her big break came when she was appointed deputy director in the Presidency in 2010.
“I was also appointed the committee secretary to cabinet committees, such as the justice, crime prevention and security committees, as well as the governance and administration committee.
“My job was rendering secretarial services and support to the cabinet committee. At that point in my career, I was exposed to working with high level politicians as well as the president. Due to the nature of my work, with very few colleagues, I could sit in on the meetings at the highest level of government to discuss issues of the country. I was only 24 at the time and considered myself very privileged.
“I was then appointed by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the then Minister of Tourism, as a media director. I went from law into politics, then into media and communication. My job was to draft speeches for the minister and manage his communications strategy. I also travelled extensively with the minister.”
She says working with Mr Van Schalkwyk was a fantastic experience. “I met leaders across the world and I attended various international tourist conferences with him.”
When Mr Van Schalkwyk was appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to Greece, Melene was appointed special adviser to Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula, and she moved back to Pretoria.
“My work included providing legal and governmental advisory services to the minister,” she says.
And although Melene never saw herself working in sport, she says it has always been a huge part of her life.
“I played sports, I made Western Province colours in athletics at primary school, and then, in high school and the first few years of university, I played netball and earned my SA colours in netball. I love sport, it taught me discipline and persistence.”
Melene decided to move back to Cape Town in 2015.
“I wanted to come back home. This is where I’m from and where I’m most comfortable. And also, I feel like if I should do or start something new, it must be in my home city. I believe that I haven’t done my most significant work yet. Although these 10 years were fascinating and my career dynamic, I believe my most significant work is going to start from now.”
Melene now works at Score, which uses sport to give children and youth valuable skills and opportunities they need to succeed in life and contribute to their communities.
“I’ve worked in the private and public sectors and I decided that the NGO sector was one I wanted to explore a bit more. That is the reason I started with this NGO here in Cape Town; where I’ve been appointed as a policy and public affairs manager.
“Over the years, I was part of the development of lots of legislation, but we never understood what the impact of the legislation would be for the people on the ground. Now I have an opportunity to see that.”
Melene says her passion lies with women’s rights and education.
“Women are the majority in SA, but they are not in key leadership positions that they should be… I want women to believe in themselves and each other and their ability to become great leaders.”
One of her concerns as a constitutional lawyer is the lack of public engagement with the people.
“Democracy is based on the will of the people. What is it that the people want? I feel like this is a space I need to do extensive work in as well.
“And how am I going to do that? Education. Do you know how disappointing it is when you talk to someone and they don’t understand their basic constitutional rights? They don’t understand what human dignity, equality, freedom entails? Do you understand your right to education and healthcare? Do you understand what it is to have a right to vote? Because if people really understood these things, we would not be facing half of the challenges we are facing, such as mass protesting. People believe they have rights, but they forget they have responsibilities as citizens in South Africa.
“And that balance is critical. I believe that if you have the information, you won’t be irrational, you will make wiser choices.”