Moving towards a culture of human rights

It is often said not to concentrate on the past but to focus on the future. Tomorrow we have the opportunity to do both, to remember where we have come from and to make sure that we never venture down that dark road ever again.

As we prepare to celebrate Human Rights Day on the cusp of 20 years of freedom, we remind ourselves that the violence perpetrated under apartheid, the violations of human rights and oppression must never be repeated.

We commemorate in particular the brave men and women who more than 50 years ago took to the streets across the country to protest against apartheid's unjust pass laws.

The pass laws were one of the most oppressive policies used to support apartheid; it controlled the movement of black Africans in such a way that made them pariahs in their own country.

The protests came to a head at Sharpeville where thousands of residents gathered at the local police station without their passbooks demanding to be arrested and were subsequently gunned down.

Sharpeville became a symbol in the struggle of all those who were committed to human rights for all South Africans and heightened our national consciousness around our rights.

Over the last 19 years of democracy we have recorded substantial advances in the promotion and protection of human rights.

There may be some who would want to disagree, questioning the difference between Sharpeville and the events that unfolded last year at Marikana where 44 people had lost their lives at the hands of the police.

When the unthinkable like Marikana does occur, we can rally to our Constitution which enshrine our rights and holds us to account. In our democratic society the police are accountable to the people and must answer for their actions.

When something goes awry, as it does from time to time in all countries, there are commissions of inquiries such as the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana tragedy which ensures those responsible will be taken to task and that it never happens again.

Furthermore, the recent events such as the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen, the actions of the Daveyton policemen against taxi driver Mido Macia, and violent protests go against the grain of what many South Africans had valiantly fought and died for during the struggle against apartheid.

The blatant disregard for the rights of others is a cause for serious concern.

President Zuma said: "It is unacceptable when people's rights are violated by perpetrators of violent actions, such as actions that lead to injury and death of persons, damage to property and the destruction of valuable public infrastructure."

As we celebrate Human Rights Day we need to awaken the spirit of 1960 and recommit ourselves in a way that entrenches human rights in the daily lives of every South African.

It begins with an understanding that every hard-fought for right has an accompanying responsibility. We must exercise our rights in a responsible manner and within the ambit of the law.

Government, as custodian of the Constitution, will protect the rights of protesters and non-protesters alike, uphold the rights of victims in criminal and civil cases, as well as ensure that the law is observed.

The President said: "The citizens of our country have a right to expect that their democratic state will exercise its authority in defence of the Constitution that so many struggled so long and hard for. We cannot disappoint this expectation."

In celebrating Human Rights Day we are conscious of the challenges we still continue to face particularly in overcoming decades of underdevelopment.

It was apartheid that deliberately deprived black South Africans of their socio-economic rights, a legacy that Government has been working tirelessly to change.

Through our Programme of Action we are providing basic services, housing, education and healthcare to all South Africans.

Today our educational system is more fair and balanced. It has resulted in a steady decline in the percentage of adults who have not received an education.

The Census 2011 showed that individuals aged 20 and older, who have no schooling, halved from 19, 1 per cent in 1996 to 8, and 6 per cent in 2011.

The enrolment for the five-year-old age group was at 22, 5 per cent in 1996 and leapt to 81, and 2 per cent in 2011.

Households that used electricity for lighting increased from 58.2 per cent in 1996 to 84.7 per cent in 2011, while households that had access to piped water rose from 80.3 per cent in 1996 to 91.2 per cent in 2011.

In support of poorer households, social spending in our 2013 national budget accounts for 60 per cent of our expenditure.

The Census 2011 results clearly demonstrate how our social spending is helping to change lives, more than 36 per cent of households have access to free clean water, 26 per cent have access to free basic electricity and 23 per cent to free sanitation.

Social grants are provided to almost a third of the population and the number of grant beneficiaries is expected to increase to 17.2 million in 2015.

The impact of our social grant programme cannot be over emphasised; it provides a safety net for families and communities who would otherwise be devastated by the scourge of poverty and unemployment.

Our economic programmes such as the New Growth Path and the Infrastructure Development Programme are also creating an enabling environment for socio-economic development to flourish.

Over the next 20 years our socio-economic development will be further advanced under the National Development Plan (NDP), which aims for all South Africans to attain a decent standard of living through the elimination of poverty and reduction of inequality by 2030.

It is under this plan that we will continue our pursuit in making human rights tangible to all citizens and ensure that the culture of human rights is evident in all facets of society.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)

Share this page