Wednesday 21 March was Human Rights Day here in South Africa. The date is significant because it commemorates the Sharpeville massacre on this day in 1960. Sixty nine South Africans were killed in the struggle for human rights that finally culminated in democratic elections in 1994.
Are human rights more respected and more widely enjoyed than eighteen years ago, or 52 years ago? No doubt one would receive different answers depending on those being asked. There are some whose only concern is that their rights have diminished; others are concerned that human rights have not extended far enough or quickly enough; some are optimistic about the journey this young democracy is on; others are profoundly pessimistic about the downward spiral of corruption, poverty and crime that strangles our economic, political and social development.
Sharpeville itself erupted into violence and riot on the eve of Human Rights Day, or Sharpeville Day as they prefer to remember it. Why? Because the government chose to host the official Human Rights Day celebrations in Soweto, not Sharpeville. For Sharpeville residents this day is a memorial service for their struggle heroes. Of course this day and the heroism of the 69 belong to all South Africans (and the world) but our government does tend to display a profound insensitivity to the cries of the people they claim to represent. The fact that the Sharpeville march was a PAC rather than an ANC-organised protest also muddies the waters, even now, 52 years later.
But there are things to celebrate, and things that should deeply disturb us as we look into our future.
Corruption is rife—no one denies it. The debate as to whether it was worse under apartheid is irrelevant; it is rife and is fast becoming endemic. Corruption, crime and poverty are intertwined in a spiralling dance of shame and fear. Government ministers and officials speak passionately about rooting out corruption, but the only action we see is the hunting down of whistle blowers.
Having said that, I was encouraged by the lead story in our local newspaper on Human Rights Day. The Supreme Court of Appeal has cleared the way for a legal challenge against the decision to drop corruption charges against President Zuma. The High Court had originally said that the decision of the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges could not be challenged. Whatever the merits of the charges or the challenge, the fact that the decision could be made, and that it could be reported freely in the newspapers, gives hope for our fledgling democracy.
Lurking just beneath the surface however is the so-called Secrecy Bill (the Protection of State Information Bill) that threatens to become a shield behind which the government of the day might hide anything it finds inconvenient or embarrassing. Not far behind is the threat to our courts in the form of a Cabinet decision to review the decisions and the powers of the Constitutional Court. This because the courts have had the temerity to challenge government and organs of state when they act outside of the laws they themselves have helped write. Some in government believe they should be able to act with impunity outside the law simply because they are elected officials.
There is less damage to the country and to a democracy when newspapers write with impunity and get things wrong than when Government acts with impunity and gets it wrong. My prayer is that we may discover ways of working and living together so that next Human Rights Day we find more to celebrate and enjoy together than to fear.