Human Rights Day is an opportunity for stock-taking and an occasion for celebration. In the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections, we should not lose sight of the very fact that all South Africans are now able to vote in a legitimate process under circumstances that are largely free of violence and intimidation. The Public Protector’s recent report on Nkandla also serves as a reminder that our democracy has brought into being strong institutions, which support the transformation of our society from one based on unquestionable adherence to executive and legislative authority to one based on a culture of justification.
On this day, we also recall the unfortunate events of Sharpeville, on 21 March 1960. The choice of this date as ‘Human Rights Day’ underlines that effective human rights protection is not a given, but is born from and needs to be sustained through constant struggle and vigilance. It is unacceptable that many South Africans still live in dire conditions, which constitute a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed socio-economic rights.
As South Africans, we should on this day also reflect on the serious violations of human rights in many part of our continent, often due to violence and state repression. It is important that the South African government should be guided in its foreign policy by the light of the Constitution. It should for example be more outspoken in its concern about the effects of the draconian laws on homosexuality adopted recently by Nigeria and Uganda. Restrictions on free expression is among many of the other issues affecting human rights on the continent. The Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria is currently involved in an amicus curiae brief before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights concerning the detention of a journalist under laws restricting freedom of expression. The Centre is further very concerned about the arrest and on-going detention of one of the its alumni, Thulani Maseko, for criticising the judiciary of his country, Swaziland.