Opinion Piece: Reflection on the Importance of Human Rights Day

Posted on March 21, 2023

South Africa's Human Rights Day is a national day historically linked to the Sharpeville events of 21 March 1960. It is commemorated each year in order to remind South Africans of the sacrifices that came with achieving democracy. As a result of the commemoration, the country has an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in the protection and promotion of human rights.

As part of UP Law's observance of Human Rights Day and remembering of what happened on March 21, 1960, we requested a few faculty members to submit an opinion piece explaining why Human Rights Day is still relevant and should never be forgotten.

Professor Melanie Murcott writes:

Human Rights Day is important to me because it serves as a reminder of a time, not too long ago, when the majority of people in South Africa had no basic rights and were actively oppressed on a daily basis. The day should really be called 'Sharpville Remembrance Day' because it is linked to the massacre that occurred at Sharpville when police fired at a peaceful crowd who had gathered to protest racist Pass Laws that inhibited freedom of movement and prevented the majority of people in South Africa from living with dignity. This is a sobering memory. We should collectively reflect, on an ongoing basis on how to prevent our past from repeating itself. On a personal level, the racism imbued throughout the legal system during apartheid meant that my parent's marriage would have been a crime in South Africa. They had to leave the country to marry and raise me and my siblings in exile. I would have been 'born a crime' in South Africa. The idea that people should be able to love each other and create families regardless of the color of their skin was not protected. I am grateful for how far we've come. Today, we can proudly say 'love is love', and mean it. This is directly because of the human rights enshrined in our Constitution. However, Human Rights Day is not only of historical significance. The majority of people in South Africa continue to live in conditions of poverty, and their human rights remain more theoretical than real. The existence of constitutionally entrenched rights creates the possibility for those rights to be enforced, and offers a legal basis for a continuous project of societal transformation - progressively turning promises into reality. In addition, the present and future generations face new challenges, particularly the climate crisis and impacts of neoliberal capitalism. Human rights can play a vital role in responding to these challenges, and that is where my focus will lie on 21 March 2023.

Candidate Attorney, Moyahabo Thoka writes:

Children’s rights are human rights, because children are human beings in their own right. In concretizing this idea and acknowledging the particular vulnerability of children as a group, 196 countries, including South Africa, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN CRC holds the record as the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in the world. Domestically, the Bill of Rights in our Constitution “enshrines the rights of all people in our country, and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality, and freedom”, while section 28 of the Constitution goes a step further, by extending specific protections to children. Retired Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs articulates it best in the Constitutional Court decision of S v M, in saying that:

"Every child has his or her own dignity. If a child is to be constitutionally imagined as an individual with a distinctive personality, and not merely as a miniature adult waiting to reach full size, he or she cannot be treated as a mere extension of his or her parents, umbilically destined to sink or swim with them". - SvM 2008 (3) SA 232 (CC), para 18.

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, we must continue to ensure that children are afforded protection and that their well-being is safeguarded in line with their rights.

Dr Keneilwe Radebe writes:

As we celebrate Human Rights Day we should remember and acknowledge the great strides made and progress towards achieving a democracy based on non-racialism and non-discrimination. As South Africans we should however remember that the fight still continues towards achieving economic empowerment and financial freedom. We are unfortunately still confronted with inequalities resulting from poverty and uneven wealth distribution among different racial and gender groups. In that regard as we celebrate and commemorate the day let us continue fighting towards economic emancipation of Black South Africans through exercising our right to freedom of expression through healthy debate and protest. As without economic freedom and growth one cannot be said to be enjoying their constitutional right to dignity which is a human right!

The Faculty of Law (UP Law) recognizes the importance of this day and is proud of the work done by the Centre for Human Rights. As part of its mission to advance human rights by combining academic excellence with active advocacy, the Centre for Human Rights aims to promote Human Rights through education and research. UP Law encourages everyone to reflect on the importance of this day and to continue advocating for the protection of Human Rights.

“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”

- Nelson Mandela

  • Professor Melanie Murcott is a Professor in the Department of Public Law,
  • Moyahabo Thoka is a Candidate Attorney for  Centre for Child Law
  • Dr Keneilwe Radebe is a Senior Lecture of the Department of Public Law
- Author Tshilidzi Mahumela / Palesa Mbonde

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