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Beyond the Public Holiday: What Human Rights Day Really Means for South Africans Today
What are my human rights, download the list and how can I exercise them today? See what SA activists have to say about Human Rights Day
Human Rights Day, observed annually on 21 March, is a public holiday in South Africa that serves two purposes. First, it’s a reminder of the events of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where 69 people were killed (29 of them children) while protesting the pass laws of the apartheid era on 21 March.
Secondly, it’s a time for celebrating the advances we’ve made as a society in promoting human rights in our country – and perhaps to remind us to continue advocating human rights and educating one another on what our human rights are.
But what does Human Rights Day mean for ordinary South Africans today? What are our human rights, for that matter, and where can find out what they are? And which are the most important ones society should be focusing on in 2019?
We spoke to three South Africans doing exciting work in society to get some insights on Human Rights Day today.
HUMAN RIGHTS DAY: RECONCILING THEN AND NOW
Although we observe Human Rights Day on 21 March, it’s about much wider human rights violations in South Africa’s history.
“It’s a day for us as South Africans to look back at all the tragedies of our country’s past and perhaps recognise that they were due to marginalised groups fighting for a better South Africa,” says Mziyanda Malgas (@queenlohaanda or “parasite hilton” on Instagram), a Cape Town model and social media influencer.
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And, naturally, South Africa’s made great strides since then. We have freedoms protected by the constitution and entire movements and legislation dedicated to promoting equality and individual rights. Our constitution was even the first in the world to prohibit unfair discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But what is actually happening in our society?
ARE WE RESPECTING EACH OTHER’S RIGHTS?
“Things are lot better than they were for our parents and grandparents, yes, but make no mistake, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” muses Mziyanda, a vocal advocate for change and self-expression, especially regarding thoughts around masculinity and femininity.
Case in point: A recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations’ Centre for Risk Analysis said that four out of ten LGBTQI South Africans know at least one person who was murdered "for being or suspected of being" lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
At the same time, reports from UCT as recent as November 2018 say that nearly half of SA women are still subjected to violence by an intimate partner. And this “negatively affects” at least one in four children.
So how do we reconcile the fact that the law protects our rights with what’s actually happening in society?
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
One person who believes that the key is education, and that it’s each individual’s responsibility to educate themselves on their rights, is Cape Town youth mentor Esther Moloi. “Knowledge is power. I believe you can't use what you don't know. So it's important for each of us to empower ourselves.”
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This SAYes programme mentor works with youth (aged 14 to 25) from underprivileged communities. Specifically, she helps integrate young people who’ve spent their childhoods in children’s homes into society. And she says that, in her household, making educational materials about basic rights available to everyone was a big focus for the family.
“Growing up, my mom always kept a copy of the constitution on a bookshelf in our lounge. It was always one of those books that I read when I was really bored, but it's probably one of the most important books I think we should all read. It’s freely available online.”
It’s true, you can download a PDF of the SA Constitution right here.
And the South African Human Rights Commission also have a lot of freely downloadable documents on human rights, including equality reports and reports on a range of topics, from rights in business to policing rights.
EXERCISING YOUR HUMAN RIGHTS
Knowing your rights is nothing without exercising them, though.
“I exercise my right to freedom of expression as an activist and use my voice and accessible platforms to fight for others to access their rights,” says Asanda Ngoasheng, the Specialist Reporting lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).
“I also practise my freedom of movement by going and being any and everywhere I want to go. And I can help in my small part, through coaching and schooling young journalists, to promote diversity by helping make sure that schools, universities, corporates, NGOs, churches and every other place in South Africa are accountable and welcoming to all who inhabit this beautiful country of ours.”
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Asanda believes that each of us has a role to play, regardless of how small your circle of influence. Be it through social media, our communities and our social circles – even at the office, at school and everywhere we go. But, she also notes that it’s important to respect the rights of others.
“I do my best to practise my rights responsibly, especially the right to freedom of expression. When I express myself and my opinion, I ensure that I don't hurt others or use hate speech when doing so.”
SA TODAY: WHAT HUMAN RIGHTS SHOULD WE BE FOCUSING ON RIGHT NOW
Although she values all rights, youth mentor Esther says that, for her, South Africa still has a long way to go towards being truly equal. “We come from a painful past, and we want to focus on moving forward. But there’s still a level of inequality that shouldn't be experienced in this day and age.”
And, although she, as a media professional, values freedoms of expression, association and movements perhaps a little more, Asanda agrees.
“There is a lot more we can do, especially about helping people access their right to healthcare and safe living environments. And, although South Africa doesn't always get it right, I am glad to live in a country that at least attempts to give access to all rights to all citizens,” Asanda concludes.
PLUS: See how to celebrate this public holiday, plus how to make it an extra long weekend with our list of things to do on Human Rights Day.
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