Every year on 21 March, Human Rights Day is commemorated to remind citizens about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of our democracy.
We should never forget that Human Rights Day stems from the tragedy of the Sharpeville massacre which occurred on 21 March 1960 when the people of Sharpeville marched to their police station in defiance of discriminatory pass laws.
The massacre of unarmed protestors by police mobilised the international community to take action against the apartheid government. Following the Sharpeville massacre, the United Nations declared 21 March the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Thirty six years later on 8 May 1996 our first democratically elected government adopted the Constitution that has come to symbolise our commitment to human rights. In recognition of this commitment, South Africa declared 21 March as Human Rights Day.
It is tangible proof of the progress we have made. For hundreds of years, under white rule and later under apartheid, even the most basic human rights were sorely lacking. The rights that we now take for granted were non-existent.
People often forget just how different a country South Africa was 20 years ago. We were a nation divided by deeply entrenched institutional racism and discrimination. When this democratic nation was born, a new society was established build on respect for human rights and dignity.
The leadership realised that the apartheid era machinery had to be dismantled if we were to truly break from the past. During the first 10 years of democracy, Parliament approved 789 laws or amendments to eliminate institutionalised racism from the statute books. Looking back. This is an astounding figure that exposes the depth of discrimination and utter disregard for human rights that was pervasive at the time.
As important as changing laws and instilling a culture of human rights was the realisation that the damage of the past had to be undone. The government understood that civil and political rights meant little if they were not accompanied by socio-economic freedom.
Since 1994 government has consistently worked on improving the lives of all and advancing socio-economic rights. In this term of government the programme of action has been accelerated to bring tangible change to the lives of people. Undoubtedly, South Africa is a much better place now that in was in the past. Seismic changes in society are evident everywhere and are reflected in the Development Indicators 2012 and the Census 2011.
This term of government has also seen the unveiling of vision 2030 of the National Development Plan (NDP). Speaking during the State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma said the NDP contains proposals for tackling the problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment. “It is a roadmap to a South Africa where all will have water, electricity, sanitation, jobs, housing, public transport, adequate nutrition, education, social protection, quality healthcare, recreation and a clean environment,” he said.
This year marks 20 Years of Freedom since the first democratic elections. We have much to celebrate but at the same time we must never take our freedom and human rights for granted. All are called on to celebrate living in a country that guarantees that our humanity and inherent dignity will never again be stripped away. All of us continue to enjoy the protection of the Constitution.
In his 2012 address on Human Rights Day, President Zuma urged the nation to join hands and to celebrate our Constitution, particular the Bill of Rights.
“Let us celebrate the right to life, to equality before the law, human dignity, freedom and security of the person, freedom from slavery, servitude or forced labour, the right to privacy, freedom of movement, religion, belief and opinion as well as the rights of workers, women and children.”
These words should serve as a reminder of how far we have come. We were among the first to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, same sex marriage has been legalised. The setting up of the Ministry for Women, Children and People with Disabilities in 2009 was another step to ensure human rights.
Statutory bodies such as the Commission for Gender Equality, the Human Rights Commission, and theCommission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural and Linguistic Communities now exist to safeguard our human dignity. Just as past generations fought for our freedom, we now have a responsibility to ensure that our human rights record is preserved and strengthened.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)