The meaning of Human Rights
Human Rights Day commemorates 21 March 1960, when hundreds of South African citizens gathered in Sharpeville to peacefully protest the pass laws. In what later became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, 180 people were badly injured, while 69 died, including women and children. Innocent citizens were harmed for trying to exercise their human rights, such as the right to gather, the right to protest, the right to dignity.
In the nearly 23 years of democracy, and nearly 20 years since our constitution was adopted, South African-born citizens have had varying levels of success in exercising the rights for which people lost their lives and were injured in Sharpeville and elsewhere. For the most part, the rights in our constitution have been protected, but there have been tragic cases, such as the death of Andries Tatane at the hands of police during a protest in the Free State in 2011, and Marikana in 2012. These were eye-opening cases that made people sit up and question law enforcement.
While it has taken more work than it should have to figure out and enforce the rights enshrined and protected by our constitution, foreign-born South African residents have an even harder time asserting their human rights, despite the fact that they are meant for us all.
Every few years, since the harrowing outbreak of xenophobia (Afrophobia if you want to call it that) in 2008, there’s a flare-up that makes national headlines. It’s always ugly and unsettling. Sadly, those on the ground and in these communities know the truth. By the time the media begins to pay attention to the unrest and violence, it’s already been going on for a while and has probably just got worse.
Refugees and asylum seekers – those whose reason for leaving the countries of their birth is the fear of persecution – have their basic rights declared in the constitution: The right to health care, the right to education, to name a few. Getting these services is not easy. To be an immigrant or refugee is to live a life of constant macroaggression.
Immigrants and refugees who can’t afford to live in South Africa’s affluent communities with their boom gates and send their children to private schools have to integrate with low-income communities. The scarcity of resources in these communities breeds contempt to a point where they become a fertile ground for xenophobic violence. Somewhere in the communication chain, the message changes from being one where there is lacklustre service delivery because there are missing resources at the top, to one where the resources are lacking because they’re going to too many people. And if you are poor, what’s to stop that message from turning into one where your survival is being hindered by the presence of refugees or undocumented immigrants?
But all people thought to be foreign, face microaggression daily. At clinics and hospitals, at Home Affairs, while travelling in their neighbourhoods. Police used to be able to stop and search vehicles and demand documentation from people they assumed to be foreign nationals. The lack of documentation would lead to the individual being arrested with the likelihood of deportation. The conditions in the deportation centres such as Lindela, were inhumane. Last year, the case Lawyers for Human Rights versus Minister of Home Affairs and Others found that the detention of undocumented immigrants indefinitely without a court appearance was unlawful. The findings stated that detained, undocumented immigrants had the right to appear in court within 48 hours.
South Africa, the young democracy it is, is still learning to balance all these new freedoms. This is why racists go to the courts citing that their hate speech is free speech. The death, injury and trauma of the people of Sharpeville is tied to Human Rights Day; they offered up their lives for future generations to be able to gather and protest, but should all protests be allowed?
In February, there was an ‘anti-illegal immigrants’ march on the heels of xenophobic violence in Pretoria and Johannesburg. The danger of such protest action is in the fact that it’s informed by xenophobic rhetoric that places the blame on what is going wrong in the country on immigrants and refugees.
Less than two months prior, Congolese immigrants had gathered in Pretoria and Cape Town to protest against the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, at the DRC embassies, as part of global action. The march in Pretoria was violent for both the police and protesters. The protesters were met with no sympathy and there was a lack of outrage at law enforcement’s use of violence against them.
Marching against undocumented immigrants and violently pushing refugees out of communities will not change anything. Law enforcement not reacting to reports of lawlessness promptly, as was the case in Rosettenville, is unacceptable. Leaders being xenophobic with impunity is unacceptable.
In the spirit of Human Rights Day, let’s learn what human rights means and work to protect the rights of vulnerable groups in our country.