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HUMAN RIGHTS FOR ONLY ONLY SOME ARE HUMAN RIGHTS FOR NONE

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Dear Fellow South African,

Later this week, on 21 March, South Africa will celebrate Human Rights Day.

On that day we will recall the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, when apartheid police shot dead 69 unarmed protesters who were taking a stand against the apartheid regime’s unjust and inhumane pass laws.

The events in Sharpeville on that day were one of the worst violations of human rights in our history and attracted worldwide condemnation. It was in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre that in 1960, the United Nations (UN) Security Council adopted its first resolution condemning violence perpetrated by the apartheid regime.

Six years later, the UN General Assembly would label apartheid a crime against humanity. It would also declare 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and an opportunity to draw attention to racial injustice everywhere.

Thirty years into democracy, all who live in South Africa continue to enjoy the shelter and protection of the Bill of Rights enshrined in our Constitution. Our forebears who took up the struggle in defence of liberty and human rights at Sharpeville enjoyed no such protection. As a result of their struggles we now enjoy these rights.

In addition to the dreaded pass laws, black South Africans were denied even the most basic rights. With a combination of unjust laws and brute force, the racist regime decided where black people could live, what schools their children could attend, who they could and could not marry, what occupations they could enter, and how much they could earn.

So petty and cruel was apartheid that there was even a law, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, that segregated public facilities along racial lines. “Whites Only” or “Net Blankes” signs were put up in store entrances, on public benches, in playgrounds, and even on the country’s beaches.

For the generations born into freedom it is almost inconceivable that such systematic, deep-seated racism existed, making it all the more necessary for us to reflect on how far we have come in building a country that is non-racial, non-sexist, equal, prosperous and free.

Over the past three decades, we have worked together to undo the terrible legacy of apartheid. However the effects of apartheid persist across society – whether it is in health, educational and developmental outcomes, access to basic services and infrastructure, or in the racialised nature of poverty, unemployment, inequality and exclusion.

Human Rights Month is an opportunity to assess the progress we have made over the past three decades to advance the Bill of Rights set out in our Constitution, as well as to reflect honestly on where we have fallen short.

The results of Census 2022 released last year highlight the progress we have made as a country in giving effect to the rights contained in our Constitution.

The pro-poor policies of the democratic state have lifted millions out of absolute poverty, expanded access to basic services, improved educational and health outcomes for the country’s majority, and broadened participation in economic activity.

As we head into our country’s 7th democratic election this year, we are further reminded of the fundamental freedoms South Africans enjoy today. These include freedom of conscience and opinion, the right to assembly and demonstration, freedom of association, and wide-ranging political rights. We also have a free, independent media that plays a critical role in promoting transparency and accountability.

On the occasion of the adoption of our Constitution in 1996, we proclaimed to the world that we are a society committed to democracy, to the rule of law and to the protection of human rights.

This places a great responsibility on us as South Africans, whether as government, business, labour or civil society, to live up to the promise of our Bill of Rights.

We have to stand together united as we work for the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. We should not be in denial about our shortcomings and strive to overcome them with urgency. For millions of South Africans, lack of access to basic services, unemployment and lack of opportunity affect the most fundamental of human rights – the right to dignity.

As we continue to work towards realising the basic human rights of all South Africans, we are reminded that these rights are universal. That all people, everywhere, have basic rights and should be free to exercise them.

We are reminded that we cannot truly be free until all people are free.

When we consider the deteriorating state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in many parts of the world today, we are mindful that we have a moral responsibility to strive for the achievement of human rights not just for our own people, but for all people across the world.

As we commemorate the tragic events that took place in Sharpeville in 1960, and recommit ourselves to the cause of human freedom, we stand firm in our position that human rights for only some are human rights for none. Let us all continue to advance and protect the human rights of all who live in South Africa.

With best regards,

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