Human rights start in the small spaces

It has been 57 years since that fateful day in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 when 69 people died and 180 wounded, when police opened fire on a peaceful protest against pass laws by people only seeking to be treated humanely by advancing the calls for equality, justice and freedom.

Another Human Rights Day has come and as we reflect we are reminded of the great strides that have been made in ensuring that human rights are protected and that they apply to all equally. The more time lapses from the dawn of democracy in our beloved country the more important it has become to guard it jealously with the bittersweet reminder that our freedom was not free.

This august hour, in a post-Marikana phase, it has become a necessity to have the most difficult conversations about what it will take to radically transform our society into a more humane one by including the voices of those located on the periphery.

For a long time since the advent of democracy we have ever so gradually become a society of somnambulists by delegating our responsibilities to nurture democracy to leaders who represent us in various stages.

As a society we have become accustomed to seeing homeless people sprawling on the streets, beggars on almost every corner, increasing numbers of perpetrators and victims of crime, unemployed graduates holding signs at the robots seeking employment, and the list goes on. All these have become common features of our surroundings and we have been tempted to tacitly accept that the world has never and will never be just.

Upon receiving the 2015 Alan Paton Prize for Askari, Victor Dlamini said he had been living abroad for 12 years at the time and he knew that he had come back for too long when he did not notice the beggars on the street. He elaborated saying that there is something that “deadens the soul. That deadens the imagination. There is nothing about this country that should make us feel comfortable. We’ve got lots of work to do.”

Upon hearing this, I could not help but think of a different time, not exempt from its difficulties but the atmosphere was different nonetheless. I can remember as a child the first time to my horror when I realised there are people without homes. I tugged at my grandfather’s jacket frantically and asked what we could do to help. After all, at the time we had a family business selling coal, we could get him a roof over his head, give him regular meals and earn him a living. My grandparents had for long been doing that before botho, popularly known as ubuntu, was a buzzword and had meaning.

It was around that time Mzwakhe Mbuli’s song entitled “Peace in Our Land” saw the light. It quickly morphed into a national anthem celebrating the anniversary of the National Peace Accord. From a child’s perspective I did not understand the gravity of this time, but I read the mood. There was jubilation and a feeling that anything was possible.

But over time moral dullness crept in subtly and before we knew it, the somnambulists took center stage. You could still differentiate between right and wrong but choose to do nothing, you could have the intention to act selflessly but fail to do so, you could muffle your conscience’s call to act and life moved on and the dangerous flirting with moral atrophy began.

The rupture for me came at my time as a student when I was part of a human rights programme bringing together students from across the continent and North America to engage in intensive and at times uncomfortable but necessary dialogue about the work that remains in advancing and protecting human rights.

Just outside Bushbuckridge I ventured out with the HIV/Aids home-based caregivers to get a firsthand experience of the challenges that they face vis-à-vis questions around public healthcare.

It was there that I met a mother of four who had contracted the illness whilst caring for her eldest son. Public healthcare services were scarce and out of reach and the mother did not have the knowledge to take care of her son. To make matters worse, she then accidentally passed the infection to her other child.

She seemed dazed when we entered her home, which looked like a place that no human should be condemned to live in and seemingly overhearing my discussion with the caregiver talking about human rights she exclaimed: “What human rights? We live to die!”

That is all she said before returning to her dazed state.  She did not need to say more, all you had to do was to look at her, the faces of her children and her surroundings. After all, her material and spiritual condition was in plain sight. It was and still is an allegory of the socio-economic transition that was never fully realised for far too many in South Africa today.

To this day these words ring in my head and as the celebrations marking Human Rights Day will go ahead (and rightly so, we have multiple achievements) it is important to keep in my mind the words of Eleanor Roosevelt on the question of how human rights shift from abstraction to reality:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Even in dire circumstances there is always hope. The Mapungubwe Institute’s Millennial Dialogue report launch presenting the results on millennials and their attitude towards politicians and the engagement thereof was a platform like others where young people at the forefront signaled that although the road ahead is long and complex, we have reason to have faith that we are capable of creating a just and equitable society.

These young people have the wildest dreams that you can ever imagine, have shown courage and must continue to do so with lucidity in their anger to discuss issues deferred from 1994 if South Africa is to achieve the unthinkable again.

- Duduetsang Mokoele is an assistant researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).

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