Today is national Human Rights day in South Africa. It’s a public holiday and a beautiful one at that. The sun is beating down on our cottage and the monkeys are squabbling in the trees nearby. On a personal level as I plan to return to the UK and study an International Human Rights Law Masters degree, today couldn’t be more apt and I have been excited to see what would unfold when it reached. I read this morning that 63% of the population are aware of the true meaning of Human Rights Day which is encouraging, however 14% said they don’t care what it is, 13% believed it was purely a public holiday and 10% didn’t know why it was celebrated at all. If you fall into the latter 37%, this blog intends to provide a brief overview about the advent of today, what it means, and why you should know about it.
On 21st March 1960, the communities within the Sharpeville townships embarked on a protest march against the Pass laws. Pass laws, which had been in place since 1948, gave the government control over the movement of Black people. Black people who wanted to move from rural to urban areas had to obtain a permit from a local authority, then another permit to seek work within 72 hours of their arrival. This was no easy feet for the Black people as documents included photographs, details of place of origin, employment records, tax payments and criminal convictions or encounters with the police. On the day of the march, apartheid police shot and killed 69 of the Sharpeville protestors and injured many more throughout the country. The tragedy became known as the Sharpeville massacre and marked an affirmation by the ordinary people to protect their rights. It also exposed the apartheid governments deliberate violation of human rights to the world, and importantly, the United Nations.
It is crucial to mention that some 12 years prior to this event, the United Nations had defined 30 articles of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which sought to establish these rights on the basis of humanity, freedom, justice and peace. Whilst the UN’s agenda fluctuated over the years, issues of racial discrimination within South Africa came to the forefront at this time. After the Sharpeville massacre, the Security Council of the UN began a consideration of the situation in South Africa. In the first action to South Africa, The Security Council deplored the policies and actions of the South African government and called the government to abandon its apartheid policy and racial discrimination.
Yet a South African Bill of Rights (Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa) was only incorporated in 1996, 2 years after the end of apartheid. I spent a little time reading the South African Bill of Rights earlier today and was pleasantly surprise to read that it comprehensively addresses the countries history of oppression, slavery, racism and sexism. The Bill of Rights is also incorporated into the countries Constitution and as such means that no laws may be passed against it. Theoretically the removal of the rights of any citizen should be near on impossible. The Bill of Rights sits proudly at a Constitutional level, and is meant to reassure other world economies and the South Africans themselves of the democratic values of equality and freedom legally bound on their country.
Today’s purpose is to engage with South Africans; asking them to reflect on their countries struggle and unite in upholding their rights. There has been a pleasing amount of media coverage on Human Rights day via the local and national papers, online and television providing information and promoting a wide array of events to celebrate. Yet in a country where over 21% of the population live in extreme poverty, access to the internet and television is mainly acquired by wealthier urban areas. There is also a host of celebrations in the larger cities including festivals, shows, parties and free entries to museums and galleries, particularly in Cape Town and the capital Johannesburg. I have welcomed this publicity and hope its continued presence should enhance the populations understanding of what their Human Rights are.
Unfortunately I am without my own transport and given the rate of violent crime and rape, I have been strongly advised by the staff at Bobbi Bear not to venture out of the gated accommodation alone, even on public transport. Resultantly I have been unable to access any of these celebrations so have spent my day on the beach (not that I am complaining!) and in the cottage where I am staying. I am not alone in my absence of Human Rights based activities attendance. The women that I work with do not have driving licences nor enough financial resource to buy a vehicle, so are spending the day catching up on household chores. The rural townships are isolated from urban activity and with high poverty levels and a national illiteracy rate of 7%, today day goes by largely unnoticed. One of the local girls I am staying with was completely unaware it was Human Rights day!
The country boasts an impressive and forward thinking legal framework for upholding Human Rights and today is a conceptually fantastic idea; educating, celebrating and advocating fundamental rights amongst it’s citizens. But where is the pressure to ensure that these rights are realised? The children and families that I have been working with over the past week have somehow fallen outside the remit of the protection of the law and live in a society where Human Rights mean little to them. Racism, sexual abuse, violent crime and gender inequality is still very real here and there is a long way to go if the government are serious in their pledge to uphold fundamental human rights to every individual citizen residing in South Africa.