2015-01-14 21:05

It is difficult to touch on a subject that stretches as widely between and through time as that of human rights. More difficult, is the ability to reflect on the depth of the concept in the context of the democratic dispensation without investigating the dynamics of the Apartheid era and the transition phase, as a bridge between the years of repressive rule and those of freedom.

When the repressive, well-thought out and brilliant idea to institute Apartheid was first brought to life in 1948, the world turned its eyes to South Africa, mostly in protest of the laws that came with it. It had been created in such a way that it would serve the interest of the minority at the expense of the uneducated black- and more consciously the passive character of the majority. More so, through its laws, millions of black South Africans we denied many rights, among them the right to association, quality education and freedom of speech and so on. Africans were denied the most basic human rights and were supressed. For this, Apartheid went down in the books of history as one of the most diabolical systems the world has ever seen. Today, its legacy lives in us and the fundamental values and principles on which it was founded still reap through and dominate our national discourse.

In light of this, one is confronted with the question: when first did South Africans recognize the significance of human rights as a key principle to national unity, and how has the idea and practice of human rights evolved over the past 20 years? The reality and the need to investigate what this question asks of us ought to be influenced by factors that go beyond the pre and post-Apartheid period. In other words, one needs to understand the consciousness of human rights (if there was any), from both the perspectives of the oppressor and the oppressed, in relation to what represented the issues of the day outside the bracket of the Apartheid era.

It is importat to note that before the legislation of Apartheid, there was a passive response to the question human rights in South Africa. Black South Africans, though organized in the form of political organizations and human rights movements such the African National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian Natal Congress, were not radical in their struggle for the emancipation of the majority. This informs one’s view of why there was little resistance to the continued violation of the majority’s right to freedom in general. The lack of human rights consciousness then was achieved and perpetuated through laws that were biased towards the interests of a particular group in society, thus the denial of all others to quality education and access to resources.

The lack of human rights consciousness, therefore, was a consequence of the structural differences and inequalities that characterized the setting of our society and the elements of the status quo that were deeply entrenched in the political system. That is how the minority were able to maintain their dominance over the majority, more importantly, to minimize resistance to the repressive laws of the time.

It had to take the introduction of Apartheid to advance the level of human rights consciousness amongst the oppressed. The extent to which the racially-based laws of the Apartheid regime were divisive intensified the level consciousness in the minds of the majority and gave rise to the need for the oppressed to consolidate and organize themselves against the unjust laws that had been imposed on them.

To further intensify the consciousness the majority, Saul Dubow (2012: 69) puts it into context by saying, “the quest for a shared South Africa was powerfully reiterated by the Freedom Charter’s bold declaration that ‘South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, black and white’, and the promise that ‘all national groups shall have equal rights”. Dubow’s view speaks to realization by South Africans that the only way they could achieve a democracy that recognizes that everybody is equal before the law is through intensive human rights advocacy campaigns. This form of consciousness came as a response to the question of South Africans taking responsibility and acknowledging the significance of human rights as a key principle to national unity.

It is through this form of public participation and activism that the consciousness of the people South Africa was developed. Moreover, it was through mass mobilization that South Africans in general were able to recognize the value of human dignity in relation to the conditions under which they lived. Consciousness, therefore, was enjoyed and acquired through responses and reactions to government policies and laws that contradicted the wishes and aspirations of the public.

The growth in understanding the dynamics and principles of human rights gave rise to a type of consciousness that went beyond the idea of human rights only; it crafted a path for both political and social consciousness, thereby speeding up the process towards the realization of the democratic dispensation.

-The path to the emancipation of the poor in the new dispensation

Since 1994, there can be no doubt that the dynamics have changed. And in all honesty, over the years a lot has changed, however much we may try to ignore the saying "the more things change the more they stay the same", the reality is that the progress made does not satisfy everyone.

As a country with a strong and progressive constitution like ours, how do we intensify the struggle for the total emancipation of the poor in the context of human rights as per the prescripts of the strong and independent institutions we have? How do we hold the political elite accountable when it has been found guilty of misconduct by an institution like that of the Office of the Public Protector? Questions of this sort must constantly linger over our heads, more so, they ought to be irritants like a thorn on our side because the failure for them to fulfil their purpose, will result in us being a society that fails to recognise the value of the laws of its land.

Ineffectively, the national discourse on the subject regarding those still at the bottom of the food chain has not been revealing about what steps to take to liberate them from the manacles of poverty, the result as expected, has left many in despair.

The question then resurfaces, how do we fast-track the emancipation of the poor from its struggles and in the process ensure that the politician of the day sticks to his promised commitment to serve the masses, not as a constitutional obligation disguised as a mandate, but as response to his intuition that it is as much a human right to be excused from the misery of poverty as is it a right to vote pubic representatives into government?

This question, however long and somewhat complex, requires of us an understanding of the commitment and dedication of anti-Apartheid movements to their struggle for political freedom. It challenges us to pursue our struggle for a better life by unsettling those who have ascended high up onto the upper echelons of our society's hierarchical system and are sitting comfortably at the top. And most certainly, it pushes us to recognise that there are solutions beyond talk-shops and isolated campaigns with a common vision but whose approach is unfulfilling and distant from reality.

The answer is rather simple, in mobilising society behind the cause for a united and prosperous society, there needs to be a national campaign aimed at developing and strengthening the consciousness of ordinary citizens around issues that are immediate to them, be they political, social or economic. The task will have a far-reaching impact not only on society's understanding of the functions of state institutions, but on the role and the power of the institutions to transform their lives for the better.

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