Buang Jones: 'Poverty issues are important to me, I grew up in a shack'

Buang Jones has come a long way from his days as a young boy living in a shack at Phelindaba in Bloemfontein.

Jones, 34, the Gauteng provincial manager of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), has recently been cast into the spotlight in his quest to restore the dignity of poor black people.

He has spoken truth to power when patients were reported to have suffered humiliation at the hands of negligent hospital staff. He has also run from one court to another to defend the dignity of black people when racists such as Angelo Agrizzi and Adam Catzavelos disparaged them.

But nothing strikes a chord more for Jones than the commission's hearings into the socioeconomic conditions in Alexandra.

Following weeks of housing-related protests in the township, the SAHRC established an inquiry to probe what had happened to R1.3bn meant for the Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) more than a decade ago.

"I stayed in an informal settlement and that is the reason this Alex inquiry is very close to my heart. We stayed in a shack until 1998. It was very difficult in high school. I'd go to school without food. I'd walk long distances to collect water. I used bucket toilets and pit latrines. I can relate to the humiliating experience of many other black people," Jones said.

"On a weekly basis the bucket has to be removed from your makeshift toilet and put on the side of the road [for collection]. Sometimes because we had a big family, we could not wait for the bucket to be fetched. We had to dig a hole where you empty the bucket. The stench is unbearable."

During last week's hearings, Jones's line of questioning raised the ire of Gauteng MEC for human settlements Lebogang Maile who accused Jones of trying to "intimidate me".

"I was really disappointed [by Maile]. Personally I felt insulted. I really tried to restrain myself in order not to stoop to his level because I cannot abuse this platform. I have an obligation to protect the integrity of the inquiry."

Bloemfontein-born Jones said their shack was built on invaded land without services.

His family moved to an RDP house, also in Phelindaba, in 1999. The following year, he finished matric at the age of 16.

He enrolled at the University of North West to begin his LLB degree. In 2003 he moved to the University of Johannesburg to do his third year. Due to financial constraints, in 2004 he dropped out and went back home, something he described as a blessing in disguise.

"That year was my foundation because I then became a born-again Christian," he said.

The following year, Jones enrolled at Unisa to complete his studies and graduated in 2007. He first trained as lawyer at the Legal Practice Council and in April 2008, got his first job as a candidate attorney at Legal Aid South Africa in Botshabelo, 50km east of Bloemfontein.

He was initially assigned to a bail court in the Bloemfontein magistrate's court. He then moved to the district court doing minor cases such as theft and in June 2009, he got admitted as an attorney.

In December 2010 he joined the SA Human Rights Commission in Bloemfontein.

Jones said he saw his humble beginnings as an opportunity to make a difference in other people's lives.

It was in Bloemfontein where Jones made his name for fighting for the rights of the poor and marginalised. His first involvement in a high-profile matter was during the open toilet scandal in Rammolutsi, Viljoenskroon, in the lead-up to 2011 local government elections.

He also worked to secure a settlement for Andries Tatane's family after his killing. Tatane was a teacher who died during a protest over water in Ficksburg.

"I'd like the commission to function like an NGO and operate like activists," he said.

He said moving to Gauteng to continue his human rights crusade brought a fresh take on issues. He said the volume of cases in Gauteng is higher than anywhere else in SA.

About 10,000 cases come before the commission nationally and 25% of these are in Gauteng. His strategy is to not wait for the complaints before starting an investigation but to be proactive.

But Jones and the SAHRC have been criticised in some quarters for letting racists off the hook with fines.

One racism case that raised eyebrows is that of former Bosasa COO Agrizzi who settled for R200,000.

"People don't understand we are bound by the law. The guiding principles of the Equality Act require us to use both restorative and corrective measures of a deterrent nature.

"When we take someone to court we want the outcome to deter others from committing the same offence. When we settle with someone, we are also contributing towards nation building, peaceful coexistence and social cohesion. That is one of our tasks," he said.

The Kaizer Chiefs fan described himself as an introvert who has not been able to make a lot of friends in Gauteng. He uses his spare time to read African literature. He also enjoys long drives and listening to music, especially gospel.

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