Human Rights Day 2024: an opportunity to remember, reflect and rethink

Human Rights Day 2024: an opportunity to remember, reflect and rethink

Most public holidays in South Africa hold great historical significance as they serve as remembrances of a painful history as well as reminders of the long road ahead.

Human Rights Day is one such day that serves as a moment of reflection and commemoration for those who lost their lives in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. The events of 21 March 1960, which started as a peaceful march against the Apartheid pass laws, turned into one of the most tragic human massacres when the police force killed 69 people including 29 children and injured over 180 people. This day marked a major turning point in South African history as it resulted in an intensified armed struggle for liberation from the brutality and inhumanity of Apartheid.

In 2024, South Africa marks the thirtieth anniversary of its democracy, a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made to achieve freedom. As we commemorate March 21 this year, it is important to pause, reflect, and assess the trajectory of human rights since the transition to democracy. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, Black South Africans have experienced the most severe human rights violations, enduring continued marginalization and vulnerability.  Despite strides toward equality, gross violations of human rights persist within the Black South African community, underscoring the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

As the country celebrates thirty years of democracy, it is crucial to assess the ongoing challenges and opportunities to the current state of human rights and explore the extent to which they are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Right to education

Everyone has the right to basic education, according to section 29 of the South African Constitution. However, the public education system continues to be characterized by dilapidated school infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor educational outcomes. For example, schools across rural communities in South Africa have unsafe pit latrines. While progress has been made in improving access to education, various assessments and analyses indicate that very little has changed in terms of quality education provided in these schools. This underscores the urgent need for concerted efforts to address systemic issues and ensure all students have access to safe and adequate learning environments.

Right to life and security

Among the many distressing problems facing South Africa at the moment is the high level of violent crime. South Africa's crime statistics for the third quarter of 2023 show that people continue to face a serious problem of violent crime, especially murder and attempted murder. The country's per capita murder rate for 2022/23 was the highest in 20 years at 45 per 100,000 (a 50% increase compared to 2012/13). While the government is exploring different strategies to curb this, the 'one-size-fits-all' approaches to addressing murder are unlikely to be effective. Responses should be adapted to respond to the drivers of murder, focusing on high-murder localities.

The right to adequate housing

In South Africa, homelessness is a political and ideological matter. Architects of Apartheid used landlessness, unemployment, poverty and homelessness among "blacks" and "coloureds" as a form of social control and oppression. As such, the South African Constitution in section 26 provides that 'everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing'. Furthermore, the Constitution makes it obligatory for the state 'to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right'. To date, informal settlements in South Africa have grown in size and population. This is despite the slow progress made by the government-funded Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).

 Refugees' and migrants' rights

If we are to fully explore the state of human rights in South Africa, we must mention the human rights violations faced by Black Africans in the hands of fellow South Africans. Black Africans continue to suffer from discrimination and bigotry, including abuse and violence with life-threatening consequences. It is our collective responsibility to root out Afrophobia and xenophobia, which undermines our prospects for a just and equitable African continent.

 To conclude, we cannot, in 2024, celebrate Human Rights Day without noting the human rights violations and humanitarian atrocities taking place in other parts of our continent, for example, in Mali, South Sudan and across the world, in particular in Gaza.  Whatever one's views on what brought the world to this point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we should be able to agree that human suffering is unacceptable and unnecessary and should be halted as soon as possible.

Human Rights Day is a commemoration, but prospectively it continues to mark the rights enshrined in our constitution that are as important and relevant now as they were in 1994. It is the events of the past and the uncertainty of the future that present a stark reminder that now, more than ever before, our national commitment to human rights should be prioritized going forward.

To address the ongoing problem of human rights violations in the country, the government needs to implement strategies such as strengthening legal frameworks, increasing public awareness and education, and encouraging community participation. These strategies, when combined with effective implementation and monitoring, can significantly reduce human rights violations and promote a culture of respect for human rights in the country.

 This article was originally published by Daily Maverick

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