Human Rights Day from a South African Perspective: Is it a Privilege or a Right? by Kgomotso Mopalami

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South Africa: A beautiful, vivacious country; a rainbow nation; a country rich in history that writing a book about it can take a life time. These are some of the beautiful words we utter with pride as its citizens.  Former President Thabo Mbeki described this country eloquently when he said, “I am an African, I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas, and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land”.  This is the pride that we all have about its people, the natural resources it embraces and the dignity that comes out of it!

The sun has risen for yet another historical day, March the 21st. This is the day that is commemorated annually in South Africa, to remind its citizens about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy.  The highlight of this commemorative day is to provide the country with an opportunity to reflect on progress made in the promotion and protection of “human rights”[1].  However, the question remains: is it a right and fair to all in South Africa, is there justice for human rights or is it only the words uttered for human indignity?  This is the time where the citizens of this country can reflect back and ask themselves if human rights are a reality or a wish.  It thus takes the responsibility of not only the leadership of the country, but everyone with a sound mind to see how best this country can become a better place for all.   Thus instilling human dignity”

Human Rights Day was birthed by a march that happened in 1960 on the 21stof March when the community of Sharpeville and Langa townships embarked on a protest march against pass laws.  Many people were killed on that day fighting for their rights.  Although South Africa became a democratic country for more than two decades now, there is still an observation of labour unrests, where in some instances people lose their lives.  Some, if not many of the unrests are informed by a plea for human rights.   What comes to mind is, is this a rhetoric?   

There are laws protecting the citizens of this country such as The Bill of Rights, as enshrined in Chapter two of the Constitution of the Republic of south Africa, that protects the civil, political and socio-economic rights of all the people of South Africa.  The Bill clearly stipulates and protects the Human Rights.

These include:

  • The right to equality: every citizen has equal right before the law, the right to equal protection
  • The right to human dignity: the dignity of people needs to be protected and be respected
  • Freedom of movement and residence: everyone has the right to reside anywhere in the country
  • Language and culture: everyone have the right to use the language of their choice and cultural life of their choice
  • The right to life: everyone has the right to life.
  • Over and above; 
  • The right to freedom of trade, occupation and profession: this right implies that every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely; also
  • Labour relations: each citizen has the right to fair labour practice; every worker has the right to form and join a trade union, to participate in the activities and programs of a trade union and to strike. [2]

The rights of the citizens of South Africa, are also protected by South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).  The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy.  Its mandate is commitment to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear of favour.  

The Commission is also clear on the following rights: 

  • Access to justice and housing
  • Environment, natural resources and rural development
  • Basic services and healthcare
  • Disability and older persons
  • Human rights and law enforcement and prevention of torture
  • Migration and equality. [3]

Having mentioned the above, HR Managers and practitioners can use this day fruitfully by educating those in their employ about their rights and how best can they practice their rights such as the “right to fair labour practice”; support employees in promoting good ethical behaviour; educating employees that they have the right to express themselves, however, to do this in a professional manner;  and overall to promote the principles of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (RSA Act 108 of 1996). When those with the knowledge impart, this country can only become a better place.  Well said by Albert Einstein: “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”.   Let’s celebrate this day with dignity by living to our mandate as HR Professionals; the mandate of “duty to society”.


[2]The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996)