South Africa is facing several crossroads on multiple fronts. One of these crossroads is human rights and how ordinary citizens, including migrants, access them. For the first twenty-six years of democracy, South Africa enjoyed the advantages of both effective institutions and a shared willingness of stakeholders to believe in the power of cooperation. This growth enabled the country to move beyond counterproductive conflict and pursue win-win outcomes. As development began to accelerate, it created new opportunities for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. As fiscal space expanded, it made it possible to broaden access to public services and social grants, to tackle inequalities and poverty.
However, there have been some stark limitations in what was achieved in the last two decades over the years. The gains achieved have done little to alter most people's economic and social realities in society. The levels of vulnerability have increased, creating a desperate citizenry that is losing hope for a better life for all, given the odds stacked against them. Access to essential services has remained a chronic challenge, despite significant investments by the government to reverse the historical legacy of apartheid since independence.
In many ways, there has been a notable failure by the state to take meaningful measures towards improving the protection of social and economic rights. This perceived failure has been undermined by widespread unemployment, inequality, poverty, the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and corruption in the public and private sectors. Last year, security agencies struggled to ensure law enforcement responded effectively to some of the worst riots and looting in the country since the end of apartheid. For instance, the violent riots triggered by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court claimed more than 330 lives. They caused an estimated R50.4-billion in damage. Other human rights concerns include violence against women, failure to ensure justice and accountability for xenophobic violence, and violence against environmental activists.
As the nation celebrates human rights months, critical questions must be asked, such as, why is the culture of human rights elusive in a country whose Constitution is widely lauded as progressive globally? How can society regain its consciousness towards upholding human rights as a norm? And to what extent can the current human rights challenges be solved via the country's Constitution? These questions beg for answers if our society is to regain confidence in claiming their rights at a time when they seem like a pipe dream for many in society.
The culture of human rights must be restored, defended, and protected by all well-meaning citizens, for our democracy depends on this consciousness. Practically, this implies that every citizen, irrespective of their socio-economic background, has a responsibility to stand up against forms of human rights abuses. Passiveness in the face of human rights abuse is contributing to the atrocity. It is time to stand out and be counted. This call for action is one way of restoring human rights as a norm in our society. It begins with each citizen heeding the call and being willing to fight for the rights of everyone irrespective of their countries of origin, ethnicity, gender, race, colour, or socio-economic status.
Therefore, it is time for massive public education on human rights as enshrined in the Republic of South Africa Constitution. Public education on the supremacy of the principles of human dignity and non-discrimination is needed. This public education is essential now in our nation in fostering a culture of human rights as the country faces ongoing threats to peaceful co-existence due to xenophobic violence and civic protests. The situation is exacerbated by austerity measures adopted by the government as it cuts back on some of its budgetary allocations critical to the delivery of socio-economic rights recognized by the Constitution. As the government explores possibilities to cushion citizens from the adverse economic effects of the pandemic, it is imperative to point out it should also widen the scope of social protection to include economically excluded groups such as asylum seekers and refugees.
In sum, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to embrace human rights as one of the critical pillars of our hard-won democracy. All human rights matter and must be respected, upheld, defended, and protected to ensure that they are not violated and that no one is excluded from accessing them as provided in the Constitution. This advocacy is a collective societal responsibility.
Written by Dr. Paul Kariuki, Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP) and rights in his personal capacity.