In South Africa, we celebrate Human Rights Day with a public holiday on 21 March. This marks the day of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 69 people were killed (29 of them children) while protesting the pass laws of the apartheid era (pictured above).
Since then, South Africa has made great strides forward. We have freedoms protected by the constitution and laws promoting equality and individual rights. But those laws can be difficult to enforce.
First in the world
For example, our constitution was the first in the world to prohibit unfair discrimination based on sexual orientation. And yet people continue to be attacked and murdered for being, or suspected of being, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Gender based violence is another blot on our human rights record. Every day in South Africa, a reported 114 women and girls are raped; when you think that this doesn’t include the hundreds more who don’t report attacks, you realise that we still have a long way to go in terms of protecting women’s rights.
Freedom of Expression
We all have the right to freedom of expression. But that comes with the responsibility to respect the rights of others; our right to freedom of expression cannot be used to hurt others. Hate speech, whether to someone’s face or venting on social media, will get you into all sorts of trouble.
According to the constitution, all children have the right to education. But many children from disadvantaged families aren’t going to school because their parents can’t afford school fees, uniforms or transport.
Or because they don’t have parents.
Child only households are common in our country – a legacy of the AIDS pandemic – with older children dropping out of school to look after younger siblings, or to earn money for food. When you add the right of everyone to health care services, sufficient food and water, and adequate housing, it’s obvious that many citizens are not able to exercise their human rights.
Right to dignity
Another difficult right to enforce is the right of everyone to dignity. We all have the right to have our human dignity respected. But what if you can’t stand up for your right to dignity? What if you’re old and frail and dependent on others to help you out of bed, wash and dress you and take you to the loo? If your carer is insensitive, busy or just disinterested, loss of dignity is a very real possibility.
Owing to the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the country, elders are at risk not only of losing their dignity, but of falling victim to crime, often at the hands of members of their own families. It’s not unusual for us to hear of cases where elders’ pensions are stolen, leaving them destitute and at risk of physical violence if they complain.
This is where Tafta steps in to protect elders’ rights. Thanks to support from the wider community, we are able to provide safe, affordable accommodation, nutritious meals and care for elders in need. This is something we can all celebrate on 21 March – along with helping others to understand their rights and helping them to access them.
Happy Human Rights Day!