Embracing Human Rights

On 26 February 2015, a 21-year old woman from Cape Town was randomly pulled over by police and strip searched right down to her sanitary pad – she was menstruating at the time – in the backseat of her car in broad daylight. The police found no evidence of wrongdoing.  Earlier this month, it was revealed that certain areas in Worcester implemented an ‘access card system’ for job seekers, requiring them to carry green cards to confirm that they have no criminal record in order to seek employment. 

In a Parliamentary address on 10 March, President Jacob Zuma called for babies to be forcibly removed from teenage mothers until the teens have completed their schooling. I am not trying to paint a wholly negative picture here. We have had many wins for a country with a history steeped in human rights violations. The fact that I have no explicit memories of being barred from any areas – except perhaps adult conversations at parties – 20 years ago is testimony to how far we have come since the end of Apartheid. But 21 years into our democracy, it is worth noting that just because Apartheid is over, it does not mean 
that it is dead. Apartheid, like an evil villain who evaded capture and went into hiding, is still very much alive and flourishing under the radar. It hides in our communities, in our homes, speaking in hushed tones, hand signals, loaded stares and closed Facebook groups. 

Apartheid lurks in taboo subjects that nobody wants to talk about: school toilets and labourer’s wages. It breeds in township classrooms with no schoolbooks and underqualified teachers, and it festers inside of us when, like good little girls and boys and decent men and women, we look the other way, sit on our hands, keep our mouths closed and swallow the crumbs that we’re still told we should be grateful to have. And yet we act surprised when it catches us unaware in shopping malls, guesthouses, on deserted street corners early in the morning and on tertiary campuses amongst young people who are pegged to be our future leaders. 

Human Rights Day, 21 March, honours a day when people stood up to the Apartheid government. Originally named Sharpville Day, it is a day when thousands of people gathered in Sharpville on 21 March 1960 to protest against the Pass Laws, refusing to carry the dompas, an internal passport designed to limit the movements of black citizens. When police saw the crowd, they opened fire, killing 69 and injuring 180 protestors.  

On that day, the government massacred the people. Today, it is often said, the people are massacring each other.We are doing this by feeding the hidden villain in our midst: When we criticize inefficient policing but buy goods on street corners that we know were stolen from our neighbours. When we’re quick to call authorities to complain about noisy dogs but turn a deaf ear to the screams of a neighbour whose husband beats her. When we condemn trade unions but underpay staff because they are easily replaceable and willing to work for pittance. When we click our tongues – or Facebook Like buttons – at the human rights violations sprawled across the pages of our news platforms, enticing us to read about it while slowly desensitizing us into inertia.

I’m not saying that the former examples are not important. We should rally against all types of injustices. Inefficient policing and laws affecting our pets all contribute to the bigger picture that make up our human rights. But it would pay huge profits to remember that human rights are not subjective, even though it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking it is. Often, we are only moved to act on or support a certain cause when we are personally affected by it. But the thing is, when we ignore and condone injustices done unto others, we are sending the same message that the Apartheid government tried to instill: that certain people and groups are not worthy of the same rights as us.  

This Human Rights Day, let us challenge ourselves as citizens of the human race to change that message. Let us look both inside and outside ourselves and see where we are unwittingly perpetuating the principles that Apartheid enforced. Let us look the past squarely in the face and embody the courage that our ancestors held when they stood up against authority and asserted their human rights in Sharpville. Those deaths formed part of the sequence of events that resulted in our current Bill of Rights. What are we willing to do to ensure that our next generation – our children – have access to an even greater version of equality and freedom?

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