The aim of Human Rights Day is for you to reflect on your human rights and become aware of what these rights are and how you can protect yourself against any violation of them. It is the state’s obligation to “respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights” and, as stated by section seven of our constitution, “The Bill of Rights 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.”
However, it must be kept in mind that a clause exists in which every right may be limited “to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable”. To what extent can the rights of people be limited and just how are they being limited or implemented in South Africa?
Prof. Charles Lombard from UP’s Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa, says that, “To a large extent, human rights are recognised, respected and implemented in South Africa.” However, he also says that government has infringed upon human rights over the last few years.
The right to protest
Freedom of assembly and the right to protest is what enables South Africans to assemble and protest against things such as unfair labour laws and working conditions as long as they do so peacefully. However, protesters are often harmed when exercising this right.
One such example is the Marikana massacre, when police opened fire on striking workers from the Lonmin mine. Prof. Lombard explains that this was a result of a fusion of two extremes. He explains that the strikers had tried to extend their right to strike to the right to strike violently, and the police had tried to extend their authority.
The right to education
The right to education is guaranteed in section 29 of our constitution. Prof. Lombard is of the opinion that this does not equate to a right to free education, although he says South Africa should invest more in education. “The cost of education is the most inexplicable thing in South Africa,” Prof. Lombard said adding such high costs are a betrayal to people. He believes that tertiary education should be made cheaper to encourage people to further their learning.
Right to access information
The Protection of State Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) has sparked controversy since its introduction in 2010.
The purpose of this bill is to control the classification, protection and broadcast of state information. Many people believe that, if written into law, the bill would impede on the right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed in section 16 of our constitution. They are particularly concerned with the right to freedom of the media and other press.
The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) is an organisation that was launched to oppose this bill. In an article published on R2K.org.za, Dale McKinley, one of the members of R2K’s working group, advises that, “The public [should] be especially vigilant because of our history of censorship and media suppression.”
According to the site, “The Secrecy Bill is a symptom and symbol of much broader obstacles to the free flow of information. These are not merely the rights of journalists or the privileges of the economic elite: free expression and access to information are the building blocks of an accountable democracy that is able to deliver on the basic needs of its people.”
Marenet Jordaan, a journalism lecturer at UP agrees that the media plays a pivotal role in society by enhancing the rights of individuals and believes that “even the government can’t function without it”. Jordaan explains that the goal of the media is to give people the information that they need to live their lives in a “free, self-governing way” and make decisions on whom to vote for, among other things.
Jordaan warns that the Protection of State Information Bill should not to be confused with the media appeals tribunal. She explains that the State Information Secrecy Bill will actually be more detrimental to people who give information as the bill is aimed at prohibiting them from circulating “state information”. The media tribunal, on the other hand, although it would be accountable to parliament, would allow for a degree of self-regulation in the press.
South Africa is not the only country in which freedom of expression is compromised. According to AlJazeera.com, three Al Jazeera English journalists were charged for “spreading false news and belonging to a ‘terrorist group’ in Egypt”. The website further stated that, “freedom of speech in Egypt has been the focus of mounting global concern since the government adopted a hardline approach towards journalists.”
The events that took place over the past few years have resulted in dampened spirits for South Africans. But this does not mean we are without hope. Let us reflect on what we have been able to achieve as a country and celebrate Human Rights Day in true South African style.
Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie