Mandela leaves the chamber to glorious singing. I try to imagine it in the Commons

The week starts well with success in an application before the Privy Council for leave to appeal against the murder, conviction and death sentence of Pamela Ramjattan. Pamela is a battered woman on death row in Trinidad, convicted of killing her abusive partner. An international campaign is now under way to highlight the years of domestic violence she suffered and its psychological toll. It will be a long haul but we have made our first breakthrough. There is great jubilation among the whole legal team, which includes lawyers who have come over from the Caribbean, but I have to leave for the airport and forgo the celebrations.

After years of anti-apartheid activism and political support for the ANC, this is my first time ever in South Africa. I am here in my new role as chair of the British Council. My first task on arrival is to open the new information centre at the Council's Cape Town office, and to give diplomas to the young lawyers who have just successfully completed a course in parliamentary draughtsmanship.

Freni Ginwala, who is now the speaker of the parliament, studied with me in London and we have a delicious reunion, remembering cases when she had me instructed to get injunctions against the South African government or to represent arrested demonstrators.

I am staying with the British High Commissioner at the residence. Maeve Fort is as unusual a diplomat as I have ever encountered and has arranged a dinner which includes many of my old friends and political allies. Kadar Asmal is now the minister of water affairs and Dullah Omar is minister of justice. Albie Sachs, who was almost killed by an assassin's bomb in Mozambique, is now a judge on the Constitutional Court. They all take great pleasure in joshing me about my ladyshipness and I am just as teasing in my deference to their grandeur of office. With another judge, Richard Goldstone, who has just prosecuted the Serbian war crimes in The Hague, we speculate about the House of Lords rerun of the Pinochet case. We are all of one mind that there should be no respite for torturers. Dictators shouldn't travel.

President Nelson Mandela delivers a wonderful speech at his last opening of parliament and leaves the chamber to glorious singing from assembled politicians and dignitaries. I weep copiously and try to imagine it happening in the Commons. When I give a lecture later that day on constitutional reform in Britain, I suggest it might be a change we should advocate.

I visit the Phakama Project, which the British Council is funding. It is the brainchild of the London International Festival of Theatre (which I have chaired for years) in collaboration with a South African theatre group, and will bring together young people in creative workshops in the South African townships over the coming months. Parallel workshops are going on in Lewisham (south London), and in June a group of South African kids will come and join their British counterparts to create a piece for this summer's festival. I take Albie Sachs and his partner, Vanessa September, along and we join in the workshop. The confidence of the group visibly grows as they become more uninhibited in their self-expression. Albie is thrilled with the life-changing possibilities of it all.

In Durban I visit a police station where the British Council helps with training in community policing. It is a very divided community with privileged white suburbs close to a poor settlement. The black inspector is struggling with the competing demands of the two communities and inadequately trained staff. Sexual violence towards women and children is rife particularly because of the myth that sex with a virgin cures HIV and Aids, a problem of increasing desperation in South Africa. The trainers are providing local women with basic first aid skills and support in dealing with victims who have been violated. Few prosecutions take place because the women are afraid to testify.

In Johannesburg I visit Soweto, where girls talk to me about their fear of going to school because of the violence and rape by thugs who terrorise their communities. The Council works with a human rights project on school safety, which only becomes possible by the whole community taking ownership of the school and refusing to tolerate intimidation. A country that has known little respect for human rights does not embrace the concepts overnight. The violence is undoubtedly the product of cumulative anger and frustrated aspirations, but optimism still shines through.

My visit ends at the Institute of International Affairs with a lecture, which I called "The Illusion of Inclusion", on race and gender in the law. The black women in the audience are particularly excited to have the issue of gender addressed so directly in tandem with race.

I had spent the afternoon visiting the temporary Constitutional Court and then the site where the new court will be built. It is adjacent to the Fort, a rotting prison where both Gandhi and Mandela were imprisoned. The architects showed me their plans and described their intention not to deny South Africa's past nor the abuse of human rights that had taken place in this very area. The new building will be full of distinctly African resonances. The old prison will house the Commission of Human Rights.

I promise Albie that I shall return for the ceremonial opening.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?