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The University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights has advanced democracy for over three decades. The Centre for Human Rights (Centre) at the University of Pretoria (UP) aims to advance human rights through education, research and advocacy, by combining academic excellence and effective activism.

The Centre played a significant role in the drafting of South Africa’s Constitution and in guiding aspects of its two-year development process after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. The work of the Centre was shepherded by its founder Johann van der Westhuizen, who was a professor and head of department in UP’s Faculty of Law at the time and who is a former Constitutional Court judge. During his tenure at the height of the country’s troubles in the 1980s, human rights were introduced into the Faculty of Law’s curriculum.

Justice Van der Westhuizen served on several panels and committees during the drafting of the Constitution and led the early stages of drafting the Equality Act (2000) before being appointed as a high court judge. During the development of the Constitution, his role in the “deadlock breaking” panel – where the language, meaning and interpretation of a draft Constitution was negotiated and amended to relieve the pressures of disagreement between negotiating parties – was of particular importance. This panel was the “last stop” for any disputes prior to restarting the entire constitutional process if a consensus could not be reached on certain matters.

Constitutional talks were first held a few years prior to the formal process and during the 1991 Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in Kempton Park. The Interim Constitution emerged from this, and the process moved to Cape Town (1994 – 1996) for the drafting and adoption of the final Constitution. In December last year, South Africa celebrated 25 years since the adoption of the Constitution.

In 1986, at the height of apartheid, discourse about a new Bill of Rights for the country took place in a parking lot at UP. This led to two historically important outcomes: a symposium hosted at the University that explored what a new Bill of Rights may comprise; and the formation of the Centre for Human Rights, which later grew into a highly influential think tank that helped shape South Africa’s national charter and influenced the country’s journey to democracy.

Both of Judge Van der Westhuizen’s successors at the Centre – the late Professor Christof Heyns and current Director Prof Frans Viljoen – have played significant roles in shaping the centre into a major player on the human rights front in Africa and beyond. Prof Heyns served as a member of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, and as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. In his capacity as one of 37 special rapporteurs, Prof Heyns reported to the UN’s Human Rights Council on incidents of murder either by a government or in which a government fails to adequately investigate and prosecute such crimes. 

Prof Viljoen, the centre’s current Director, has attracted many postgraduate students (from across the continent) to uphold the work of the Centre, which is to engage  with various stakeholder groups across Africa to sustain its mission of propagating human rights.

The Centre has become one of the most historically important academic influences of change in South Africa. It continues its work today, aiding fledgling democracies and continental states. What began as a small initiative three decades ago, soon became a vehicle of constructive protest for the University.  

Despite being locked inside a socio-political narrative beyond its control, the thought leadership that arose from the centre – from conversations about what a new Bill of Rights may look like through to the CHR’s participation in its drafting – undoubtedly influenced change. While the National Party government sought to protect minority groups separately in a new constitution, it was the influence of Justice Van der Westhuizen as chair of the CHR that ultimately caused the regime to relent from its demand.

The South African Constitution became one of the most advanced of its kind in the world. Its composition was inspired by the domestic narrative pre-1994 and, according to Justice Van der Westhuizen, influenced by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the German incarnation after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In turn, various aspects of South Africa’s Constitution have been borrowed by nations as far afield as the Ukraine. In addition, the late US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed Egypt to South Africa’s governing charter as an ideal basis for the redevelopment of its own constitution. DM



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  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I love this talk of human rights. I believe in it. I would also like to see, in all these discourses about the topic of human rights, some discussion on human obligations. Rights cannot exist in a vacuum – they are not, of themselves, extant without the axiomatic obligations that they carry. Come on professors and theologians, politicians and judges, journals and ordinary folk – let’s hear about rights AND obligations. Let’s keep the balance.

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