Human Rights Day on 21 March 2021 marked 61 years since the Sharpeville massacre. On that day, we remember that people were shot as they protested against the unjust pass laws that limited freedom of movement.
Although it might seem a long time ago for many of our younger students, it is within living memory for many South Africans. The Covid-19 pandemic and the various levels of lockdown may have given you some sense of what restricted movement could be like, but during that time, people’s movement was curtailed by their race not by the greater good of staying at home to stay safe.
This year sees South Africa celebrate 25 years of our constitution and the Bill of Rights. Globally, South Africa is renowned for having one of the most progressive constitutions. This is especially close to our hearts at the University of Pretoria because some of our academics from the Faculty of Law and Centre for Human Rights in particular were among those who were responsible for drafting the Constitution.
It is therefore unsurprising that the University of Pretoria is committed to human rights in all its forms. This basic appreciation of the rights of everyone is enshrined in how we live THE UP WAY by being respectful to all and mindful of our diversity as people, to our practical advocacy and research that finds voices for the voiceless.
At UP we reject and condemn racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ethnic chauvinism, religious intolerance, unfair discrimination, hate speech, sexual harassment and other harassment, femicide and gender-based violence, in all its forms – and commit ourselves to the eradication of these practices.
To this end, it is the priority of our Transformation Division to create a conducive working and learning environment for students and staff.
The overarching goal of transformation at UP, as stated in our Transformation Plan, is to foster and sustain a transformed, inclusive, and equitable university community where diversity – of race, gender, religion, sexuality, culture, socioeconomic status, disability and academic background – is welcomed; different perspectives are respectfully heard; and every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Our Transformation Division is also responsible for UP’s all-inclusive Anti-Discrimination Policy, which focuses on prevention, awareness and training, disciplinary procedures and support services. It applies to all UP staff and students, as well as service providers, contractors, visitors, and other third parties present at any of the UP campuses or other facilities.
Our Centre for Human Rights, Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Centre for Child Law and Centre for Sexuality, Aids and Gender are just a few of the research units at the University of Pretoria that promote and advocate human rights across a variety of sectors which have a direct impact on society. Our human rights advocacy is spread across all our nine faculties through direct engagement with communities where our students and staff use their skills for the benefit of society.
We recognise that building an inclusive, affirming and transformed university cannot be achieved merely through adopting measures such as new policies and the establishment of institutions. However important such steps are, realising the vision of a transformed university will ultimately depend on the day-to-day persistence of individuals and collaborative efforts by all of us who work at the university.
In addition, UP is the only representative from Africa in the new University Social Responsibility Network, an international group of 16 top universities. And last year the Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings rated UP among the top 100 universities in the world for its social and economic impact in three categories, based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, namely:
- Quality Education,
- Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and
- Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Our history and current contributions to the realisation of human rights for all is relevant to the global campaign for the elimination of racism. Amid the pandemic last year racism raised its ugly head across the world and came into sharp focus with the death of George Floyd in the United States, followed by many others. George Floyd died in an incident televised globally when a policeman placed his knee on his neck and ignored all his pleas that he could not breathe. Floyd’s “I could not breathe” moment became a rallying cry for the ways in which racism stifles literally and snuffs out life brutally. “I cannot breathe” or “we cannot breathe” became a rallying cry of victims of racism for its elimination. Movements like Black Lives Matter, which had appeared to be subdued or waning until then, were re-energised and gained global traction. The role of the youth in the campaigns was visible.
In the UK and some European countries like Belgium it led to anti-racism campaigns targeting institutions, symbols and statues associated with slavery, colonialism and empire as symbols of a living racism. The dead weight of systemic racism still weighs down the lives of not only individuals but groups in societies across the world. It does not spare the youth. It stifles their ability to enjoy their humanity and fulfil their potential. It sets limits on achievement and constrains their contribution to the development of society.
This year’s Human Rights Day theme, Youth Against Racism, has particular resonance for us in South Africa, given we are part of an African continent where more than 60% of the population is under 35. It happens in a context where youth unemployment is high and rising. In a country with legacies of racism that have yet to be fully eliminated. Race still shapes opportunity because it stifles ability and blights futures.
Access to good schools and post-school opportunities including university still follows racial contours, although formal racial segregation ended in 1994. Not all black youth have the same opportunities as other races. Where black youth have the same opportunities, they thrive and develop to their full potential. These opportunities are increasing but the pace needs to be quickened to disrupt living legacies of the scourge.
A broken system of funding for young people who qualify for university and post-school education opportunities, burdens them and universities with debt, reinforces forms of racial exclusion through financial exclusion. It has caused waves of protest across universities in the last two weeks as it did during the #FeesMustFall protests a few years ago. We should create a system where all students who qualify for university are funded to access quality education in well-funded universities that are debt free. In that way, we expand opportunity and affirm their human rights.
To advance the struggle against racism we need to use all of the knowledge that we have created about racism to educate our youth to fight it and become anti-racist campaigners. In that way we create a generation of young people able to contribute to the building of a genuinely diverse and inclusive society.
An education in critical race studies as well as critical diversity studies must be embedded in the curriculum from an early age. It will equip the youth to wage anti-racism campaigns using a range of resources from the visual, creative and performance arts and culture, to literature and media, history and science on digital platforms. It will be empowering for youth to co-create content with some guidance from experienced anti-racist campaigners and educators. There is a greater likelihood that youth who own the message in every respect will be more determined fighters of racism. A different world without racism that affirms human rights is possible, if only we all become anti-racist. DM