This month South Africa celebrates its progressive Constitution which re-affirms fundamental rights and freedoms in its Bill of Rights, and reflects on past injustices under the apartheid system.
South Africa’s Human Rights Day on 21 March commemorates the events of Sharpeville in 1960, when the apartheid police fired on and killed 69 people in a peaceful crowd protesting oppressive “pass” laws – which restricted the movement of black people in urban areas. Human rights, enshrined in the Bill of Rights in the 1996 Constitution, are an important means of protection for everyone, especially those made vulnerable by poverty, abuse, and neglect.
After the first democratic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president, South Africa signed on to several regional and international treaties demonstrating its commitment to embrace shared values of human rights and dignity for everyone. The government took on the responsibility to protect, promote, and fulfil the rights contained in the constitutional Bill of Rights and under international law.
But the reality is that today, in the face of growing inequality, high unemployment, and corruption, many South Africans are unable to realise their rights, or to live with dignity. Extreme poverty restricts access to already inadequate education and health services, while the country remains divided by racial tensions and plagued by perennial waves of xenophobic violence.
South Africa has taken important regional and global leadership positions and is currently in its second year as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council as the nominee of both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU). Regionally, South Africa is chair of the African Union for 2020. The question is whether South Africa is leveraging these leadership positions for respect for human rights across Africa.
South Africa has had an inconsistent approach to human rights abuses on the continent. The country may have started off well in 1994 with a vibrant human rights agenda when Mandela declared that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy”.
But as another Human Rights Day rolls in, it is a good time for President Cyril Ramaphosa to press the reset button on its domestic and international relations and return the country to the moral high ground that Mandela set for it as a global leader and beacon for human rights in Africa. Ramaphosa should make a public pledge to set out an action plan to protect and promote human rights to address current human rights issues plaguing the country.
Ramaphosa’s administration should prioritise enacting measures to help end endemic violence against women, including by improving systems for women to report violence without fear of retribution and by enhancing the capacity and quality of investigations and prosecutions. Last year South Africa was rocked by nationwide protests following a number of killings of women and increased cases of gender-based violence. Protesters called for declaring a national emergency and expressed anger over the government’s failure to protect women.
Since at least 2007, South Africa has experienced perennial waves of violence against foreign nationals, mostly from other African countries. In early 2019, the government created a National Action Plan to combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination, an important step toward addressing the widespread human rights abuses arising from these attacks. But a lot still needs to be done to end xenophobic violence and discrimination against foreign nationals, including holding those responsible for violent attacks to account in fair, credible trials and by sanctioning public officials who propagate inciting rhetoric against foreign nationals.
Another pressing human rights issue is lack of access to free and inclusive education for children with disabilities. Ramaphosa has acknowledged that South Africa has “not achieved nearly enough” regarding the rights of people with disabilities. Education in South Africa is not yet free for the majority of children with disabilities. South Africa’s laws do not automatically guarantee the right to free education. But most children who attend public schools do not pay school fees, while most children with disabilities in public special schools are charged fees. And many children with disabilities attending mainstream schools are charged additional fees that children without disabilities do not have to pay.
A pledge and action plan to revive South Africa’s human rights agenda in its foreign policy should start with addressing the serious human rights issues at home. Only then would a human rights-centred approach to international relations help improve South Africa’s regional and international standing. This would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.