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The vision of human rights needs joint responsibility — we must drop our porcupine quills and learn to trust


Professor Nico Koopman is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

Like porcupines, South Africans treat one another with caution and suspicion. We struggle to overcome our presuppositions about one another, and our prejudices. We need to learn to trust and to talk about how we wittingly and unwittingly still hurt and alienate one another.

On Human Rights Day, 21 March, we celebrate the fact that South Africa is blessed with one of the most progressive bills of human rights in the world. In drafting our Bill of Rights, the authors borrowed from our rich history of struggle against injustice, as well as from bills of rights in other parts of the world. We specifically also borrowed from the post-World War 2 constitution of Germany, with its emphasis on human dignity.

Human dignity is the foundational principle in our Bill of Rights. A life of dignity for all is characterised by healing for all, justice for all, freedom for all and equality for all. This life of dignity can only take shape where we work hard to right all the wrongs of our past and present. We need to be working for restitution if we want dignity to materialise.

Without restitution, dignity becomes and remains suspect. Without restitution, dignity no longer implies the inalienable worth and value and esteem, and the accompanying wellbeing and flourishing and thriving of every human and every creature and the whole of creation.

Without restitution, there’s no real healing — no physical healing, emotional healing, spiritual healing, moral healing, social healing, political healing, economic healing and ecological healing. Without restitution, justice is not just. One could go so far as to say that without restitution, justice goes astray. Justice in all walks of life should bring forth restitution. All forms of justice should be true to restitution and should in the end be restitutive justice.

It should be made clear that freedom without restitution is slavery repeated. In a country like ours, freedom should be accompanied by restitution, by a life where every South African enjoys access to the necessities and goods that allow him/her to lead a meaningful existence.

Restitution rights the wrongs of exclusion from livelihood. All people in all walks of life — personal, professional, public — should enjoy restitutive freedom. Without restitution, equality also goes astray. Equality is good news when it is accompanied by bread, healthcare, education, employment, safety, participation in life and the good and goods of life, the opportunity to develop one’s talents and contribute to the common good.

Human rights can only be fulfilled if two things happen. First, if we take responsibility for the implementation of restitutive dignity, healing, justice, freedom and equality. To live responsibly is to pay attention to what is going on around us, to identify what appeals the situation makes to us, and to answer and respond proactively and appropriately to these appeals. Rights and responsibilities need to be harmonised. In a context where democracy is under threat globally, it is important that we proactively work for the fulfilment of first-generation civil and political rights, second-generation socioeconomic rights and third-generation developmental and ecological rights. In the context of high levels of poverty and unemployment, we need to focus on the implementation of socioeconomic rights. In the context of ecocide, we need to work towards the fulfilment of ecological rights.

Second, human rights take shape if we work together as South Africans. We come from a divided past and there are still high levels of conflict and polarisation. We, however, need to combine our efforts, otherwise we will not survive as a nation. South Africa does not only belong to all who live in it, as the Freedom Charter of 1955 states. It also needs all who live in it. We need the expertise and experience, talents and gifts of all our inhabitants from all backgrounds.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer developed the so-called Porcupine Dilemma. When it is cold, porcupines need each other’s warmth to survive. But when they get close to each other, their instinct is to activate their sharp spines, and therefore to hurt each other. However, they simply need to try again, to overcome the caution that separates them. And they need to control the natural instinct that causes them to hurt each other.

This image of the porcupines applies so much to South Africans from different backgrounds. We treat each other with caution and even suspicion. We often struggle to overcome our conscious and subconscious presuppositions about each other, and our prejudices against each other. We need to learn to trust each other and to address our persistent hurting of each other. We need to talk about the ways that we wittingly and mostly unwittingly still hurt and alienate each other.

It is strange to ask even adults to learn to live together. But the misunderstanding and hurt across colour lines worldwide affirm that we know what life together in homogeneous contexts means, but struggle to embody the idea of life together in pluralistic contexts. Training in the development of so-called diversity and transformation skills can strengthen our capacity to live together and take joint responsibility to build communities where the vision of a society of human rights, dignity, healing, justice, freedom and equality becomes a reality. DM


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