Global Dignity Day at Robben Island

Reflections from IJR’s Lucretia Arendse

The Global Dignity Campaign is an initiative by more than 70 countries that encourages young people to understand the deep meaning of dignity and to promote dignity-centred activities in schools and communities. The Antiracism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) piloted this project locally intending to create an awareness of a more dignified life for all South Africans. From July to September 2019, students from different provinces created art projects to express their views and understandings of dignity. Schools that participated held their dignity day, where learners show-cased their art pieces to their peers. Each school nominated three art forms that were presented to the provincial panel and learners were then selected for the national level. The campaign culminated on 15-16 October 2019 in Robben Island where learners from Port Elizabeth and the Western Cape presented their artwork.

Twenty-two learners and thirteen adults (including teachers and IJR staff) celebrated two days on Robben Island in which learners presented their art and engaged in a proactive dialogue on their understanding of dignity as well as the challenges in their schools. The learner’s different art forms included drawings, paintings, poems, music, and drama which portrayed their understanding of dignity.

The students were encouraged to present in the language they felt most comfortable with and utilising the art medium in which they can best express themselves.

Learners stressed the importance of seeing each other, not through racial divides but, as members of one race, the human race. Learners also discussed dignity in terms of respect for all, empathy, not judging others and stressed the importance of self-worth and self-awareness. However, learners also acknowledged the fact that there are numerous challenges when practising their visions of dignity in their schools and communities. Learners committed, as Global Dignity Ambassadors, to promote dignity through social media, through ongoing activities and discussions in their schools, as well as acting as examples to other students by treating their teachers and others with the utmost respect. Learners also discussed national issues in South Africa in which human dignity is often violated. These included gender-based violence, xenophobia, and inequality. They committed to keeping these issues in mind when discussing the topic of dignity. As one learner quoted “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something; then I realised that I am somebody.”

The thought-provoking artworks led to fruitful discussions and admiration from the learners regarding each other’s work. The teachers praised the event and noted the importance of safe spaces to discuss dignity. One teacher mentioned that “we need to create spaces for learners to interact with each other so that they can see their commonalities and not differences”. Teachers also committed to implement and continue the discussions of dignity in their respective schools. Teachers committed to help students with self-awareness, global dignity campaigns and to act as an example to learners by being mindful of dignity in daily practices.

The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation is also committed to the Global Dignity Campaign. IJR will work into bringing this critical discussion into the mainstream conversation of South Africa. The Global Dignity project will continue in the upcoming years and expand the number of provinces and learners involved. South Africa cannot afford to overlook issues of human dignity and all South Africans regardless of different backgrounds, must join the conversation. As IJR’s Executive Director, Stan Henkeman, noted: “we must uphold our own but also the dignity of other people”. It is our responsibility to reflect on dignity, how to address the present challenges and to interact with other people despite differences in a way that is respectful of their dignity.

The Global Dignity event at Robben Island was possible with the support of our partners at the South African Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.