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21 November 2017 12:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Noel Kututwa

Human rights in the balance: 20 years of South Africa’s democracy

  • Noel Kututwa
    Noel-Kututwa.jpg
    Noel Kututwa

    Noel Kututwa is Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s regional office in South Africa.

The attainment of democracy was also a victory for the rest of Africa. Many Africans saw the developments in South Africa, in particular the way that people of all races are living in harmony, as truly inspirational. And yet as the 20th anniversary of democracy drew near, there was much debate here as to whether South Africa should be celebrating at all, given the enduring challenges.

Two decades ago, when the first post-Apartheid election took place on 27 April 1994, South Africans knew they had finally won respect for Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

It was no easy achievement. Many lives were lost; many years were spent in prison; many families were separated. Freedom came at a very high cost, as it always does.

South Africans have a lot to be proud of as they reflect on the past 20 years. Democracy has been entrenched. State institutions created under one of the world’s most inspirational constitutions have been strengthened and have ensured that the gains made since 1994 are not lost.

Ahmed Kathrada, a former political prisoner and African ANC elder, speaking at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December last year, reflected that one of the greatest achievements was “… that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”

South Africa is indeed a free country that is not held captive by its past, a country that offers hope to all South Africans, irrespective of colour.

The attainment of democracy was also a victory for the rest of Africa. Many Africans saw the developments in South Africa, in particular the way that people of all races are living in harmony, as truly inspirational.

And yet as the 20th anniversary of democracy drew near, there was much debate here as to whether South Africa should be celebrating at all, given the enduring challenges. The fact that this question has been freely debated, without fear of repercussions, is itself a cause for celebration. It is also healthy for the country to take stock of its successes and failures – this will ensure that the goals set 20 years ago remain at the forefront of politics and complacency does not set in.

Amnesty International has been working in South Africa - monitoring the respect, fulfilment and promotion of human rights - for many decades, starting in the Apartheid period. While many things have been achieved from a human rights perspective, a lot more still needs to be done. Poverty, inequality and unemployment continue to deny many South Africans the full enjoyment of their human rights. The State is faced with a huge challenge of how to ensure that everyone in South Africa can enjoy their human rights.

Amnesty International has been working on the issue of policing for many years. While the old Apartheid policing machinery has been dismantled, resulting in many improvements, police abuses have not ended. On 16 August 2012, for example, South Africa made headlines for all the wrong reasons when police shot and killed 34 miners who were on strike at Lonmin’s platinum mine at Marikana.

The Marikana tragedy highlighted problems that had been simmering for years within the police service. Increasing politicisation of the police and the introduction of certain policies have undermined police respect for human rights, witnessed on occasion by their disproportionate use of violence against protesters. Amnesty International has also seen an increase in reports of corruption, torture and criminal activity by the police. The result has been loss of trust in the police.

Amnesty International has also continued to document abuses of the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. As one of the region’s major economic powers, South Africa attracts many economic migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Despite its international human rights obligations, South Africa has closed urban refugee reception centres, making it difficult for people who are already vulnerable to access refugee determination procedures. To make matters worse, many of these vulnerable people face xenophobic attacks in different parts of South Africa with little acknowledgement from the government that this is a problem needing urgent attention.

Another key challenge for the authorities relates to maternal health. Many women, particularly in remote rural areas, still find it difficult to access ante-natal care. The result is a disturbingly high maternal mortality rate, reflecting that every day women are dying needlessly during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth.

South Africa’s constitution and subsequent legislation led the way globally in terms of recognising sexual orientation as a human right and providing for same sex marriage. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people continue to face discrimination and violence at alarming rates. Between June 2012 and July 2013, Amnesty International documented nine cases where people were murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In recent weeks there have been more media reports of hate crimes against LGBTI people. The State needs to better protect members of the LGBTI community and increase human rights education about their rights.

For South Africans, human rights are not an abstract concept. Instead they are something many of us struggled for. Overall, South Africa can be proud of its many achievements in the past 20 years. However, a lot more needs to be done to address not only the continuing gross inequalities but also the unacceptably high levels of unemployment and poverty. DM

Noel Kututwa is Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s regional office in South Africa

  • Noel Kututwa
    Noel-Kututwa.jpg
    Noel Kututwa

    Noel Kututwa is Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s regional office in South Africa.

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