Human Rights Day on 21 March marks over 60 years since the Sharpeville Massacre. On this day, we remember that people were shot as they protested against the unjust pass laws which limited freedom of movement.
Although it might seem like a long time ago for many of our younger students, it is within living memory for many South Africans. The COVID-19 pandemic and the various levels of lockdown may have given you a sense of what restricted movement could be like, but during that time people’s movement was curtailed by their race, not by the greater good of staying at home to stay safe.
It is also very important to observe that this year sees South Africa celebrate 25 years of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights is an important guarantee of the norms and standards for a democratic dispensation. Globally, South Africa is renowned for having one of the most progressive constitutions. This is especially close to our hearts at the University of Pretoria (UP), because some of the academics from our Faculty of Law and Centre for Human Rights in particular were among those who were responsible for drafting our Constitution.
It is therefore unsurprising that UP is committed to human rights in all its forms. This basic appreciation of the rights of everyone is enshrined in how we LIVE THE UP WAY by being respectful to all and mindful of our diversity as people, through our practical advocacy, and in research that finds voices for the voiceless.
At UP we reject and condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ethnic chauvinism, religious intolerance, unfair discrimination, hate speech, sexual harassment and other harassment, femicide and gender-based violence in all its forms – and commit ourselves to the eradication of these practices.
Our reimagined aspiration to be future-orientated and future-focused includes creating an environment without discrimination; an environment that is enabling, affirming and nurturing.
We cannot forget also that discrimination on socioeconomic grounds manifests itself in the higher education environment as financial exclusion for those who need and qualify for higher education but cannot fully afford it. Socioeconomic rights are critically important in a genuine democracy. UP uses its own resources and generates funds from partners to support students to access the high-quality education we provide. We at UP will actively participate in national debates and the creation of funding and financing mechanisms that ensure financial inclusion for all students, and at the same time guarantees sustainability for the higher education system.
It is the priority of our Transformation Division to create a conducive working and learning environment for both students and staff.
The overarching goal of transformation at UP, as stated in our Transformation Plan, is to foster and sustain a transformed, inclusive, and equitable university community where diversity – of race, gender, religion, sexuality, culture, socioeconomic status, disability, and academic background – is welcomed; different perspectives are respectfully heard; and every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. Achieving diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of UP’s substantive transformation agenda. It requires all of us to own the agenda and make all the contributions we can. For example, it is not enough to say, “I am not a racist.” You have to be actively anti-racist. The same applies to sexism. We must all be anti-sexist.
Our transformation division is also responsible for UP’s all-inclusive Anti-Discrimination Policy, which focuses on prevention, awareness and training, disciplinary procedures, and support services. It applies to all UP staff and students, as well as service providers, contractors, visitors, and other third parties present on any of the UP campuses or other facilities.
Our Centre for Human Rights, Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Centre for Child Law and Centre for Sexuality, Aids and Gender are just a few of the research units at the University of Pretoria that promote and advocate for human rights across a variety of sectors which have a direct impact on society. Our impact on human rights expansion is spread across all our nine faculties, through direct engagement with communities which sees our students and staff use their skills for the benefit of society.
We recognise that building an inclusive, affirming and transformed university cannot be achieved merely through adopting measures such as new policies and the establishment of institutions. However important such steps are, realising the vision of a transformed university will ultimately depend on the persistent, day-to-day individual and collaborative efforts by all of us who study and work at UP.
UP is not just talk and ideas on paper. To ensure that concerns and complaints are dealt with, we have a special Escalation Policy, which clearly sets out the route staff – there is a separate one for students – can follow to escalate issues to senior management and the University’s executive management team.
The policy is clear: A staff member who wishes to escalate a matter must first raise the matter with the appropriate line manager responsible for managing the issue. An issue that is not of an academic nature must be reported to the head of the relevant department or unit. If it has not been resolved, it should be escalated to the Dean, and thereafter, if it is about an academic matter, to the Vice-Principal: Academic. Escalation to the Vice-Chancellor should only take place as a last resort.
Escalation is a normal practice when there is no response, or an undue delay in response, or by mutual agreement between the parties. The guiding principle of this policy is to ensure that matters are resolved as soon as possible.
We also encourage our diverse community of staff to incorporate values of human rights into their teaching and research, and to identify the implications of human rights in the many research fields that we specialise in. We do this to not only highlight the importance of human rights, but to enhance the access and success of our students through meaningful engagement.
In addition, UP is the only representative from Africa in the new University Social Responsibility Network, an international group of 16 top universities. And last year the Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings rated UP among the top 100 universities in the world for its social and economic impact in three categories, based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, namely:
- Quality Education;
- Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; and
- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Investing in IT infrastructure to ensure equitable online education
South Africa has experienced major upheavals over the past year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many families have lost breadwinners and loved ones. In these bleak times, I would like to remind our students to use all the opportunities which UP offers in order for you to be able to find a job or start your own business. Taking up work experience in the many community engagement projects that are linked to our curriculum will help you understand that the work you do should always be underpinned by a recognition of the basic human rights of all, and a desire to uplift others.
While our academic year begins later than normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with most classes taking place online, we must appreciate that this measure protects the health and well-being of students and staff. We are also mindful of the socioeconomic implications of studying online. That is why we invested over R100 million in IT infrastructure, to ensure quality online education is equitable and available to all students. The fact that our specially built online portal does not carry data charges further helps create equal access.
We are charting a new future for UP. The scale and scope of the economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other disruptive trends demand that we reimagine the university system and pursue bold responses to enhance our sustainability, relevance and contribution to our country and continent’s socioeconomic advancement.
This Human Rights Month, I also want to urge our community to continue to adhere to the COVID-19 restrictions and regulations as a human rights measure, so that we can protect the health of those around us. Human rights is more than a legal concept, it’s a way of life at UP.
Professor Tawana Kupe
Vice-Chancellor and Principal