Coretta Scott King reminds us that freedom is never won, it ought to be fought for in every generation. What is the state of our fight?
Sixty-two years ago this week, South African citizens took to the streets to protest “passbook” laws. They were committed to fighting against the brutal system of apartheid that sought not only to oppress but to dehumanise on the basis of race. Theirs was a struggle for human rights, the right to self-identify and to dignity.
The 1960 protests were against passbooks and the laws governing them. Pass laws were no different and no less a set of heinous laws than Jim Crow, or Hitler’s labelling of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
To commemorate this day, I visited the community of Philippi in Cape Town. This community sees some of the highest levels of crime in the country — and is surrounded by other hotspots including Nyanga, Delft, Mfuleni and Gugulethu.
The latest crime stats released by the South African Police Services (SAPS) records 74 murders per day and 123 rapes per day. It is in this light I was shocked to learn from members of the community that the police exchange favours and bribes for prosecution. Sex and money are the entry points to seeking justice for millions of South Africans.
This is a serious violation of the right to safety and compromising of the state of our police which in the main is leaderless and incapacitated — 28 years after apartheid ended and the right to safety is limited to those with economic access and ability. It has been privatised with those with access to private security safe, while crime runs rampant in poorer communities.
And rights go further than mere safety, with most human rights not guaranteed for far too many citizens in South Africa. Today there are still citizens who use pit latrines and buckets for toilets, while many South Africans live in fear for their lives and property because of the high crime rates. It broke my heart seeing a grandmother cross a river using a sealed drum. On this day, many South Africans still do not have an education system that works for them.
Ultimately the dignity of many citizens is taken away by their poverty. These realities are not what those who laid down their lives in Sharpeville were dreaming of.
Thinking about the rights’ discrepancies in South Africa made me wonder what the 1960 protestors would do if it was the apartheid government that was responsible for these failures, they would no doubt take to the streets to fight with courage, vigilance, and resilience. Today, the apartheid regime has fallen but our rights are taken for granted by those we trusted, and many rights are being corroded by those who fought the apartheid regime. How should we respond?
What obligations do we have as South Africans, how can we honour the sacrifices made by those who laid their lives down for us to have these human rights which are central to our democracy? I hold the view that we honour them by fighting for the rights that remain unrealised in our nation.
We also honour those who died on this day by defending the rights and values that are under attack, not just here at home but also in our continental neighbourhood. As a nation that believes in the values of dignity, equality, and freedom, we have an obligation to aid those whose rights are being violated in the countries around us.
If we do nothing, we know what the outcomes will be. We have seen what happened when Omar al-Bashir was let loose on the people of South Sudan. We continue to see great tragedy in Uganda where Yoweri Museveni destroys opposition and violates human rights. We see what is happening just north of our border in Zimbabwe when people like Emmerson Mnangagwa use the police force to detain, attack and intimidate apportion members. It is no different in Eswatini when citizens march and get killed by the police.
We cannot ignore what is happening in our region and claim to be custodians of human rights. After all, even Nelson Mandela believed and advocated for a foreign policy built on human rights and trade. In this week, let us challenge our appetite for activism and reject those among us who have chosen a path of suffocation of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Let us recommit not only to upholding the rights that were hard-won but to build on the solid foundations that have been laid.
To tackle crime, policing must be decentralised and increased to restore law and order. This way, a normal life is for women to walk freely and be able to dress as they please without the fear of rape and violence; where people can trade freely, and children can play innocently.
To achieve a dignified life for our young people, education needs to be reformed — whereby teachers are better trained and better-remunerated, where pit latrines are eradicated and textbooks are delivered, and where pass rates are raised to 50%. We can build a competitive cohort of young people who can build an economy for the future.
And to achieve a more transparent and accountable government, we must bring about a new model of electing our leaders through a constituency-based system. This way political parties are not given free rein to deploy whomever they want to represent communities in Parliament. Rather communities get to elect those best equipped and best suited to represent their needs and aspirations.
If we get this right, we will be a long way on the journey to realising the many human rights that too often sit dormant on the pages of our Constitution, instead of being alive in the lives of our people. DM