In 1948, the United Nations established universal human rights on the basis of humanity, freedom, justice and peace in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights – making the provision and protection of human rights important.
Ironically, the establishment of basic human rights coincided with the Nationalist Party’s took power in South Africa, a period when apartheid laws were institutionalised – laws that took away black people’s basic human rights.
On 21 March each year, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day, a day that is historically linked with 21 March 1960 and the events of Sharpeville. On that fateful day, 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police opened fire on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against Pass Laws.
The significance of this day is attached to an affirmation made by ordinary South Africans, rising in unison to declare their rights.
The events at Sharpeville have marked the 21st of March as an iconic date in South Africa’s history, a date that commemorates Human Rights Day as a reminder of our rights and the cost paid to shed light on the provision and protection of human rights.
Human Rights Day (March 21) was officially declared a public holiday in 1994 following the inauguration of former president Nelson Mandela.
On Human Rights Day, South Africans are asked to reflect on their rights, to protect their rights and the rights of all people from violation, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and whether they are foreign nationals or not – human rights apply to everyone, equally.
The Bill of Rights is hailed as the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa as it protects the rights of all people in the country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.
Some of the rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights include:
The right to citizenship and security. Persons and groups are entitled to freedom of assembly, association, belief and opinion, and expression. They have the right to demonstrate, picket and petition; everyone has the right to be free from forced labour, servitude and slavery.
The right to privacy and to exercise political rights; all have a right of access to information and just administration action. They have rights when arrested, detained and accused, and must have access to courts.
The right to freedom of movement, residence and of trade, occupation and profession. In the workplace, everyone has a right to engage in trade unions and labour movements. Anyone has the right to purchase property anywhere and to a basic education. They have a right to language and culture and communities; and not least, freedom of religion and belief.
The Bill of Rights also specifies the rights of persons belonging to cultural, religious or linguistic communities and the rights of children. In addition, there are specific laws to safeguard women and protect children.
Protected rights include a healthy environment, housing, healthcare, food, water and social security.