Is Human Rights Day about Sharpeville or about human rights?

2012-03-27 14:29

March is the month of human rights in South Africa, because of our national Human Rights Day on 21 March. Different articulations about what 21 March implies today in South Africa, deserves some attention.

Historically, 21 March is linked to the anti-pass demonstrations in 1960 organised by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the massacres that followed in Sharpeville and Langa. As a consequence both the PAC and ANC were legally banned a few weeks later. It is understandable that the PAC claims credit for Sharpeville – the same applies to the Black Consciousness movement’s claim of credit for the Soweto uprising on 16 June 1976.

Both events have been memorialised in public holidays but does it mean that the PAC and the BC movement are also given space in the official historical memory? This question can be related to the latest demonstrations in Sharpeville against the fact that the national government function was held in 2012 in Soweto instead of Sharpeville. The PAC and Sharpeville residents have realised that they are losing ownership of the day.

The complication of Human Rights Day for the ANC is that the movement’s historical narrative presents human rights as one of the cornerstones of its liberation struggle. In terms of official recognition and symbolism, however, the day is associated with the PAC.

2012 is the ANC’s 100th anniversary and it provides an appropriate opportunity for the movement to consolidate its claim on the historical hegemony of all aspects of the liberation struggle. In general, history in the form of memory is continuously subject to revisionism by both scholars and politicians. The ANC government’s choice of Kliptown, Soweto, for this year’s national Human Rights Day function is loaded with revisionist symbolism.

Kliptown is directly associated with the Freedom Charter, which is directly linked to the South African Constitution – see for example the Charter’s resonance in the Constitution’s Preamble: ‘that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity’.

The Constitution, in turn, is pivotally important for the human rights dispensation, and as a consequence the day has been reconceptualised this year from a day of commemoration in the PAC tradition, to a day of historical association with the ANC. It raises questions about history as memory versus history as politics.

A question not only applicable to Human Rights Day but also to some of the other public holidays is: should it be a day of commemoration (and then Sharpeville is the most appropriate location for it) or should it be a day of public commitment to human rights and national celebration?

In South Africa it is already a cliché that history is a contested terrain but at the same time little is done in the field, except for projects like the South African Democracy Education Trust. For the ANC its interest is without question to emphasise its historical association with days like 9 August or 16 December, while those not involved in the ANC’s history would prefer to concentrate on the days’ relevance for national issues (i.e. youth, women, reconciliation, etc).

This inherent tension in the meaning of several national holidays characterises the public domain.

Symptomatic of the implied contestation for ownership of public national symbols (such as the holidays) is the fact that the ANC Government was the host of the day at Kliptown and not the national Human Rights Commission. The fact that only COPE and AZAPO accepted an invitation to participate in the event also suggests a lack of ‘national ownership’ of public holidays. Ironically, the presence of COPE’s leader, Mosioua Lekota, unexpectedly accentuated the public contestation for ownership of historical memory.

Kliptown was the site of the Congress of the People in 1955 and its historical ownership became the main bone of contention between the ANC and the newly formed COPE (Congress of the People) in 2008. By bringing together Zuma and Lekota in Kliptown everyone was reminded of the changing dynamics of the liberation history.

Essential to apartheid was the denial of human rights to all South Africans. Pivotal to the new Constitution (1996) is the inclusion of four generations of human rights and the establishment of a constitutional state in which the rights are justiciable by the judiciary. It is noteworthy that Pres. Mandela signed it into law on International Human Rights Day, 10 December (1996).

Moreover, the incumbent UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is a South Africa, Judge Ravi Pillay. Therefore there is much to consider or celebrate on Human Rights Day.

In Pres. Zuma’s speech on Human Rights Day he made an attempt to claim credit for the ANC by stating its historical association with human rights since 1923. The latter part of his speech was, however, almost a second State of the Nation address with no direct references to human rights at all.

Its sub-text is indeed interesting, because it linked human rights to the local demonstrations and by extension to socio-economic rights (as the ‘second generation’ of human rights). While it appeared to be a policy or political speech on the Government’s infrastructural development programme, by implication it repeated the Government’s philosophy that infrastructure will be the panacea for unemployment and poverty, and therefore for addressing the deficit in socio-economic rights.

If we take it one step further, we should not under-estimate the significance of human rights in 2012. The predicament of many states is that democracy and human rights are not necessarily synonymous. Democratic states cannot claim to be automatically fully compliant with respect to their human rights obligations.

A dimension of human rights that has become very relevant in South Africa is the relationship between these rights and public policy. Pres. Zuma has stated a few times already his frustration with the ostensible interference of the judiciary in policy matters.

Recently the Government has indicated its intention to review the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Appeals, and its insistence on the transformational responsibility of the judiciary.

The ANC also suggested the possibility of changes to the Constitution.

One of the motivations for such changes is the fundamental right to property (section 25). Though it entrenches private ownership of property, including land, it also allows for a public policy on land reform. Hence, most of the section provides guidelines on land expropriation with compensation. Nowhere is there any reference to ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ as the constitutional principle of land reform. However, since the National Land Summit (2005) this free market principle has been the main scapegoat for problems in land reform. Julius Malema extended the debate to land restitution and nationalisation of mining as an implicit attack on section 25.

Though being one of the human rights in Chapter 2, this section by implication has become one of the most hotly debated issues prior to the ANC’s National Conference.

Other second and third generation rights equally relevant for policy debates include access to housing and a healthy environment. The well-known Grootboom case judgement (2001) by the Constitutional Court remains the benchmark interpretation of section 26 (i.e. the right to adequate housing). Ironically, Irene Grootboom passed away several years later without gaining access for herself to adequate housing.

More recently the ‘right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being’ (section 24) combined with the ‘right to have access to sufficient food and water’ (section 27) has become a matter of interpretation and debate in view of an increase in mining operations in South Africa, notably the proposed fracking in the Karoo and mine acid drainage in the Vaal River system and the Mpumalanga coal fields.

Once the human rights dimension of these policy issues are more prominently introduced in the debates, balancing of the business and human development considerations might improve, and the Government will be less able to rely primarily on its democratic legitimacy and historical moral authority to justify itself.


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