South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day but major challenges remain

As South Africa commemorates Human Rights Day tomorrow, 21 March 2018, it is an opportunity for the government now led by President Cyril Ramaphosa to situate human rights at the centre of all actions of the government in line with the constitution and address recent human rights violations.

Human Rights’ Day this year coincides with the Nelson Mandela Centenary, the father of South Africa’s democracy and a global human rights icon. South Africa has made great strides in consolidating its democracy and guaranteeing the independence of its judiciary.

However, the failure of the government to act decisively in resolving human rights violations and hold the perpetrators to account, reduce high levels of inequality and demonstrate that everyone is equal before the law, has greatly eroded the public’s confidence in the ability of the government to respect the rule of law.  

In the recent past, the threats to and victimisation of journalists and media outlets raised serious concerns over the government’s commitment to guarantee freedom of expression.  Journalists who write about corrupt practices in state-owned enterprises that implicate senior government officials have been intimidated, harassed and threatened. Pressure from the state to censor the broadcasting of news coverage that reflects negatively on the government, particularly ahead of elections and the punitive measures taken against journalists who criticise authorities’ actions have greatly undermined media freedoms.  

Utterances by some senior government officials and ministers that liken civil society organisations to foreign agents seeking to distabilise the state goes against constitutional guarantees of freedom of association. Also acts of intimidation, including well planned armed robberies targeting civil society organisations working on politically sensitive cases, aim to force them to self-censor. Recent attempts by the South African government to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the introduction of the International Crimes Bill which supports the granting of diplomatic immunity threaten to reverse the gains made in advancing human rights and send a wrong message to victims of crime. 

Said Corlett Letlojane, Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of South Africa: “The killing of 69 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville 58 years ago is a stark reminder of the injustices of the past and the reason why the rights of all South Africans are celebrated on Human Rights Day.”

“The government must consider developing a law for the promotion and protection of human rights defenders to enable them operate independently without fear of reprisals,” Letlojane said. 

There is a lack of mechanisms for adequate redress of human rights violations when they happen. For instance, justice has not been served for the 34 miners killed and 78 others seriously wounded - and for their families, after police opened fire on striking workers at Marikana in the North-West Province. To date, the killing of land and environmental rights activist Sikhosiphi Rhadebe in March 2016 for advocating against the harmful effects of open cast titanium mining in the Xolobeni area of the Prestine Wild Coast in the Easter Cape Province has not be adequately investigated and the perpetrators have not been held accountable. Instead members of the Xolobeni community continue to receive threats for condemning the mining activities in the area.  

The “new dawn” for South Africa, envisaged in President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address on 16 February 2018, acknowledges the significance of civil society and the respect for the rule of law. This should also mean a new era when the constitutional rights of all are respected and perpetrators of human rights violations are held accountable for their actions. 

South Africa is rated as narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks civic space in real time in countries round the world.

Happy Human Rights Day!

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CIVICUS Media                                                        HURISA Info






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