Still, we fight side by side for freedom

2015-03-22 15:00

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People flee a hail of bullets from the Sharpeville police station on March 21 1960. After a day of demonstrations against the pass laws, a crowd of about 7?000 protesters gathered at the police station. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. Picture: Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty images

Yesterday, we marked the 55th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, where people were shot while protesting peacefully against pass laws that restricted the movement of African people and reserved apartheid cities as white residential areas.

Part of becoming a free and democratic South Africa was the task of restoring the dignity of the black majority by ridding our country of such indignities. We sought to engender a culture of human rights by ensuring the bill of rights was part of our republic’s Constitution, which is now our supreme law.

Among other memories, that of Sharpeville and Langa, coupled with our celebration of human rights in a free and democratic South Africa, reminds us of our obligation to others. Our solidarity with the people and countries that continue to live under the yoke of repressive restrictions and oppressive governments is our commitment to realising a better world and better humanity.

This week, the people of Israel exercised their right to choose a government of their own, which is a fundamental human right.

But against this backdrop, we were reminded that the people of Palestine are not free. They daily face the brutality of the Israeli state. It is common cause that Palestinians, who are no different to black South Africans during apartheid, are confronted daily with the inconvenience of searches at random checkpoints.

Under the guise of security threats to the state of Israel, their movements are restricted and their rights to human dignity trampled on. On his campaign trail, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded people of how far the Palestinians were from finally enjoying their human rights.

He declared: “I think anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate land is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel.”

The right of a people to live and move freely in the land of their birth was couched as a threat against those who were exercising their right to elect a government of their choice. This was a stark reminder of how the apartheid government instilled fear in white South Africans about the “swart gevaar” and “rooi gevaar” – making a bogeyman of those who would supposedly make their lives a misery if they came to power.

The reality of a free and democratic South Africa has proven otherwise. But it further exposes Netanyahu’s rhetorical subterfuge because, in 2009, when referring to the two-state proposal, Netanyahu claimed Palestinians and Israelis “are two peoples living side by side?…?with neither one threatening the neighbour’s security and existence”.

The denial of human rights for the people of Palestine reminds us of Nelson Mandela’s words that the struggle of the Palestinians is “the greatest moral issue of our time”.

Similarly, as we are reminded of our need for solidarity with the Palestinians, we are also urged to give the same support to Africa’s Sahrawi people, also seeking the right to self-determination.

The same solidarity should extend to the Cuban people as they seek to find each other in talks with the US.

We must remember that, despite these engagements, the trade blockade between Cuba and other nations remains in place. As South Africans, we should continue to assert the right of people here and everywhere to be free to express themselves as they wish, to associate with any individual, nation and people.

For us, the transformation we have brought about requires that we defend these freedoms in our society. This is critical, as there are indications of dompas-like incidents in parts of the Western Cape, where jobseekers must carry identification in white neighbourhoods.

The rise of racist attacks and commentary erodes the moral fibre of our society, where human rights and freedoms are guaranteed by our Constitution.

We must also stand firm against all forms of xenophobia and actively engage with our communities to understand the value of diversity and the need to treat people who have come to our country legally with the respect we accord each other.

Racism or xenophobia must not be tolerated by any South African. We must not be afraid to expose racists and xenophobes. We fought against the apartheid regime and must not tolerate intolerance or fear of the other.

We must also not allow the demon of tribalism to contaminate our lives. We are one diverse nation and must acknowledge our diversity as a strength and build on it.

The sexual orientation of an individual is a right our Constitution protects and it is important that South Africans acknowledge that attacks on gays and lesbians are an infringement of their rights.

As we recall the progressive rights in our Constitution, we must ensure we live by these values and teach each other to accept what is different in each community and that we are one nation. We live in a democracy and freedom of speech is our most valuable right. This makes us different from countries where people cannot speak out against what they do not like. We must also accept that democracy produces a particular outcome and citizens have a chance to vote for a political party of their choice.

The ANC fought for this right. We must protect it and teach others how to accept election outcomes.

We are who we are because of each other.

As we remembered and celebrated Human Rights Day yesterday, we would have done well to draw from the Freedom Charter – whose 60th anniversary we celebrate this year – to say, “these freedoms we shall fight for side by side?…” even now in our free and democratic country.

Ours is a responsibility that we live in a united, nonracial, nonsexist and democratic country.

We also want to realise a world where the freedoms and human rights of others are respected and protected, irrespective of whoever they may be.

Duarte is deputy secretary-general of the ANC

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