What do we mean when we think about human rights?

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, United States historian Samuel Moyn suggests that, “when people hear the phrase ‘human rights,’ they think of the highest moral precepts and political ideals” and the term brings to mind “a familiar set of indispensable liberal freedoms”.

Human rights are about more than idealistic hopes. Moyn argues that “the phrase implies an agenda for improving the world, and bringing about a new one in which the dignity of each individual will secure international protection”. Human rights occupy a utopian place in our collective imagination, but this vision only becomes a reality through our bold commitment to bringing about such a world.

South Africa has an awkward history with human rights, to put it mildly. But a renewed recognition of the revolutionary potential of human rights to bring about profound changes in society is long overdue. Human Rights Day offers an opportunity to celebrate our progress and confront our failures.

Human rights for who?

Today, it seems as though human rights are a universal and historical fact. But the idea of human rights is a relatively recent invention. Despite South Africa’s history of racial dispossession, a key figure in the white minority government played a crucial role in the development of human rights principles.

Jan Smuts, former prime minister of the Union of South Africa, was one of the chief authors of the United Nations Charter. This foundational document inspired the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, the same year the National Party swept to power on the platform of separate development. How did Smuts reconcile the principle of human rights, which recognises the “inalienable rights of all members of the human family” with the disenfranchisement and dispossession of black people? For Smuts, humanity did not include Africans.

In a lecture commemorating his predecessor, Cecil John Rhodes, at his alma mater, Oxford University, Smuts claimed that Africans are “children of nature” and that “a race so unique, and so different in its mentality and its cultures from those of Europe, requires a policy very unlike that which would suit Europeans”. In other words, human rights applied only to Europeans.

In The Concept of Human Rights in Africa, Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji criticises the concept of human rights as espoused by Smuts and others, as it constituted “one of the main elements in the armoury of imperialism”.South Africa’s history of racial segregation would later become a classic example of an international human rights violation in the 1970s. Within a few decades, South Africa went from being one of the primary instigators of the idea of human rights to its most famous antagonist.

As the international anti-apartheid movement gathered support and UN member states learned more about apartheid, international condemnation of South Africa was nearly ubiquitous around the world. One tragic day in particular, March 21 1960, proved to be the catalyst for highlighting human rights abuses in South Africa.

Sharpeville and human rights

Human Rights Day commemorates the anniversary of perhaps the country’s most famous human rights protest: the anti-pass protests that led to the Sharpeville massacre. In December 1959, the newly formed Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) adopted a resolution to begin protesting against apartheid’s racist pass laws.

In a press release announcing the anti-pass campaign, recently republished in Lie on Your Wounds: The Prison Correspondence of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, PAC leader Robert Sobukwe lucidly outlined the significance of individual and collective freedoms: “We cannot remain foreigners in our own land. The African people do not need to be controlled. They can control themselves.”

Sobukwe proved to be almost prophetic in predicting the protests’ tragic outcome. “If the other side so desires, we will provide them with the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be. We are ready to die for our cause.” Sixty-nine protesters were killed, most of them shot in the back, and a further 180 injured by the police. Sobukwe also emphasised the connection between anti-pass protests and human rights. “This noble campaign,” he wrote, “is aimed at obtaining for the African people those things that the whole civilised world accepts unquestioningly as the right of every individual.”

The PAC’s anti-pass campaign intended to defy apartheid’s suppression of black people’s human rights: rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, and the right to dignity. When police officers, acting as an extension of the apartheid state, gunned down peaceful protestors, they attempted to stifle black people’s demands for human rights.

On the 60th anniversary of those tragic protests, in a country where pass books and influx control are a thing of the past, what do human rights mean in South Africa today? Are we any closer to guaranteeing the rights that so many died for?

Human rights today

In 2020 alone, public debate across the country has focused on several instances of human rights abuses: children denied the right to dignified sanitation in schools, young girls denied the right to life on the Cape Flats, and fellow Africans denied their rights as refugees. Despite significant successes in the scale of state service provision since 1994, access to essential goods and services, such as nutritious food and clean water, is uneven at best and insufficient at worst. High-quality healthcare and education remain the nearly exclusive preserve of the rich.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer, a regular, nationally representative public opinion survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, sheds light on national progress and pitfalls. Since the survey’s inception in 2003, South Africans have consistently highlighted inequality, not race, as the greatest division in society. In 2019, three in five South Africans said race relations had either stayed the same or worsened since 1994, while less than a third of respondents claimed that their economic circumstances had improved.

Democracy has extended the basis for human rights to all South Africans, but the removal of oppression has not equated to substantive liberation. The promise of the democratic transition has been relegated to a dream deferred; poverty remains racialised, economic inequalities have widened and society continues to be divided. But perhaps the true success of the transition was the establishment of what Hannah Arendt termed “the right to have rights”, cementing the democratic state’s obligation to fulfil and protect the human rights of all South Africans.

On Human Rights Day, we should reflect on our hard-fought collective freedoms. But we cannot remain complacent about the continued neglect of socioeconomic rights, particularly in a society marred by widespread violent crime, poverty and poor services. Shivji argues that it is imperative to “reconstruct the human rights ideology to legitimise and mobilise people’s struggles” and that “human rights should be seen in the wider context of the struggles of the African people”. It is essential to restore a collective sense of urgency in addressing persistent human rights violations and holding the state to account.

Human rights, Moyn reminds us, are “a recognisably utopian programme: for the political standards it champions and the emotional passion it inspires, this programme draws on the image of a place that has not yet been called into being”. To create such a place — a more just, equitable and inclusive society — and to resolve our contemporary crises, we must revisit Sobukwe’s bold invitation, on the eve of the anti-pass protests 60 years ago: “Be involved in this historical task; the noblest cause to which one can dedicate himself — the breaking asunder of the chains that bind your fellow men.”

Mikhail Moosa is the project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

Article first published on Mail & Guardian