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Human rights in South Africa – rhetoric vs reality


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

The various commemorative holidays in South Africa have been reduced to occasions for sunny skies, braaivleis, and to increase the profits of liquor outlets (which then leads to an escalation in crime, abuse of women and children and death and injuries from road accidents – a sad, predictable, vicious cycle – which is entirely and easily preventable if there is a political will to enforce laws, one of the primary functions of an efficient, effective, and functional government).

The month of March marks several opportunities for reflections on the challenges relating to the realisation of social justice, human rights and equality at international and national levels, and how this deficit is widening exponentially in South Africa. There is International Women’s Day (8 March), and Human Rights Day in SA (21 March), commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, when police opened fire on a protest march against the (dom)pass laws, killing 69 people.

It is apposite to reflect on the deviation from the egalitarian human rights ideals as entrenched in the South African Constitution. Chapter 2 of the Constitution incorporates the Bill of Rights which is “a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.

The Constitution is opposed to any form of discrimination and religious prejudice: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”.

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Furthermore, everyone in South Africa “has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care; sufficient food and water; and social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance. The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights”.

The major challenge is to translate constitutional rights into reality. Kofi Anan, when he was United Nations Secretary-General, contended: “Wherever we lift one soul from a life of poverty, we are defending human rights. And whenever we fail in this mission, we are failing human rights”.

At the turn of the century, a seminal Constitutional Court judgment (the Grootboom case), pertaining to the rights of the poor to housing, revealed that there were problems in addressing the rights of the disadvantaged, especially those “who have no access to housing, no roof over their heads, … people who are living in intolerable conditions and … people who are in crisis because of natural disasters such as floods and fires or because their homes are under threat of demolition”. 

The Grootboom judgment further argued that “human dignity, freedom and equality, the foundational values of our society, are denied to those who have no food, clothing or shelter. Affording socio-economic rights to all people therefore enables them to enjoy the other rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The realisation of these rights is also critical to the advancement of race and gender equality, and the evolution of a society in which men and women are equally able to achieve their full potential”.

Cycle of poverty

In December 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission reported that: “Lack of access to socio-economic rights provides the clearest reflection of the levels of systemic poverty, unemployment, and inequality in South Africa and demonstrates the persistent recurrence of the cycle of poverty”.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of sanitation services which compromises the dignity, health, and quality of life of poor communities, especially the most vulnerable groups, namely the aged, women and children. In 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission reported that the loss of public resources through corruption has compromised water and sanitation services for poor communities in rural areas. Furthermore, the failure to realise these basic rights “perpetuate and entrench cycles of poverty and inequality in the country”. Ditto electricity and Eskom.

More recently, journalist Barney Mthombothi wrote that “the state of our streets, our backyards, our towns and cities, children merrily playing on dump sites, villagers drawing water from polluted dams and rivers, are a metaphor for the condition of our souls …It is a physical reflection or manifestation of our pathologies”.

Gender-based violence

According to the 2018 Human Rights Watch’s World Report, the South African “government’s record on human rights and respect for the rule of law was poor. Corruption, poverty, including high unemployment, and crime significantly restricted South Africans’ enjoyment of their rights”. Also, all forms of violence against women were increasing and under-reported.

Ignominiously, the 2022 Human Rights Watch’s World Report recorded that South Africa had one of the highest levels of gender-based violence in the world. Furthermore, “South Africa’s low levels of prosecution and conviction in domestic violence cases and the frequent failures by the police to serve and enforce protection orders, exposed survivors to repeated abuses and resulted in the violation of women’s rights”. 

The 2022 report also noted that “South Africa failed to take meaningful measures to improve the protection of social and economic rights, which has been undermined by widespread unemployment, inequality, poverty, the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and corruption. The authorities struggled to ensure law enforcement responded effectively to some of the worst riots and looting in the country [July 2021] since the end of apartheid”.


A damning indictment against post-apartheid policymakers is the view that notwithstanding 29 democratic years, very few of their policies have “challenged the apartheid geography”, and have in fact reinforced race-class inequalities. In 2004 Professor David Smith contended that the “social injustice of apartheid was easy to demonstrate … While the end of apartheid promised a more just society, gross inequalities are being perpetuated in the post-apartheid city and in society at large. The present trajectory is indefensible morally…”.

As South Africa’s democracy fails to deliver to the poor, politicians search for scapegoats, and foreign migrants are sitting ducks. Xenophobia is racialised and Afrophobic as hostility is mostly aimed at other black Africans. Nelson Mandela University researcher Savo Heleta recently maintained: “Why would politicians choose to face the rightful anger of millions of poor and hopeless South Africans when they can revert to anti-immigrant rhetoric and shift blame to those who have no voice?”

In a message to mark World Peace Day on 1 Jan 2019, Pope Francis “warned politicians of the dangers of exploiting nationalism and fear of foreigners to undermine the trust essential to their task of binding societies together, not dividing them”. He maintained that in a “climate of mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of strangers, or anxiety about one’s personal security … political addresses that tend to blame every evil on migrants and to deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable”.

In 1999, the South African Human Rights Commission contended that “if a society’s respect for the basic humanity of its people can best be measured by its treatment of the most vulnerable in its midst, then the treatment of suspected illegal immigrants … offers a disturbing testament of the great distance South Africa must still travel to build a national culture of human rights”.

Twenty-four years on, the South African experience gives credence to the view that human rights operate at the rhetorical level and that there is an inability (or reluctance?) to translate this into tangible benefits for the poor, including undocumented migrants. DM


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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yep, yeah. So rhetoric; because the reality of most is so dire. Viva, ANC, Viva. Lovely rhetoric, lawless, merciless, impoverished reality.

  • Graham Howard says:

    It’s not society who has no respect for the most vulnerable it’s the ANC who has absolutely no respect or shame for the very people who voted them in power and who they abuse every day in their gutless ability to serve the nation honestly.

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