Maverick Citizen

HUMAN RIGHTS DAY OP-ED

Why mark Human Rights Day in a time of human crisis?

(Photo: iStock)

Our celebration of human rights is a reminder of the connections between human rights, love, beauty and dignity, and the fact that the scourge of hunger and food insecurity, prevalent in South Africa, fundamentally undermines the human right to dignity.

Today, as I read the news – headlines of wars, suffering, climate destruction, mass shootings, hate crimes and so many other depressing daily occurrences in our world – I thought about the upcoming “holiday” on Monday that is Human Rights Day. I could not help feeling an overpowering sadness. Holidays are supposed to be “holy” days in their origin – special religious days. In North America, for example, the connotation is “any dedicated day or period of celebration”. 

I started to wonder why we would commemorate “Human Rights Day” when we are living in a time of prevalent human crisis. From the horrific war in Ukraine, where so many are being killed or displaced, to right here in South Africa, where we are faced with the realities of constant suffering due to inequity and cycles of poverty and violence that lead to difficult, tormenting lives for so many – lives riddled with health problems, emotional and mental suffering, substance abuse, and generally the sense of loss of a life that is being lived, rather than one that is merely being survived. 

I also started to wonder about the connections of human rights, love, beauty and dignity. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Judge Denise Fisher. She said in a conversation, “At the soul of human dignity lies the right to assume that one is worthy of being nourished. Denial of this basic tenet of humanity causes trauma which is deeper than hunger.” 

How remarkably true. Her comments made me remember the words of American psychologist James Hillman in a discussion about the pursuit of happiness where he says, “There is no happiness without the sense of beauty and without being in love with life.” This sentiment resonates in Judge Fisher’s words.

Speaking of the South African Constitution, she continued, “Our Constitution names the dignity of the human being as the first among its founding principles. Our Bill of Rights is the most progressive in the world, and yet people still go hungry here. Being under- or malnourished is a barrier to entry into every functional part of society. You cannot maintain your dignity within any part of the social space if you are hungry. If one has to scratch in a dustbin to get sustenance, one is not only inadequately fed, the fact that you must take another’s rubbish and put it into your body is the greatest indignity imaginable.

“Your humanity cannot accommodate that for an extended period of time. We all have a relationship with food, and if you look at Western ideologies, food is more than physical nourishment. It’s an integral part of how we experience our dignity and ourselves. Food should be beautiful. One of the most important parts of the experience of eating is the manner in which the food is presented to us. It’s part of the dignified experience of eating.” 

As I listened, in awe of Judge Fisher’s synopsis of the complexity of the human right to food and dignity, she laid at our door the call to action that we must all undertake in this space of fighting hunger and food rescue. She said, “The way in which you package food is just as important as the nourishment in it. That’s a challenge for SA Harvest. You want to give something to someone in a way that makes them feel valued. SA Harvest’s task is not only to get the food into the mouths of people who need it. It is to feed their sense of worth.”

SA Harvest – Nourishing Our Country – Cape Town. The service dining rooms. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer)

At SA Harvest, a leading South African food rescue organisation, we believe in breaking the cycle of charity because the tragic irony of charity is the consequence of indignity that it creates for those whom it serves. By examining the root causes of hunger at a systemic level, we believe it is possible to break the cycle. 

Human beings are resilient and there is enormous strength in the collective. We can accomplish the unthinkable and solve mammoth problems if we join hands to uplift one another and fight for change. As I watch how so many have mobilised to help those displaced by the war in Ukraine, it is a reminder that we have the ability to take action. I am inspired by the generosity of so many to contribute energies in various ways to offer a solution for these human indignities. 

On this holi day, I invite you to take action: be an advocate against hunger.  Sign our petition and ask your government to create a ministry of food to revamp the food ecosystem and end hunger in South Africa. DM/MC

Saina Shelton leads the marketing team at SA Harvest. 

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