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20 years of the Constitution

17 May 2016

By Advocate Shafie Ameermia, SAHRC Commissioner responsible for Access to Justice and Housing.

On 8 May 2016, the whole country remembered with fond memories the day when the Constitutional Assembly 20 years ago adopted the Constitution which would be the blue print of our country. However, as was noted by Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa who at the time was the Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, “[T]he real legacy of the Constitutional Assembly is not merely in the books that will be distributed, it lies in the growing awareness of what a Constitution means.

I appeal to you all to nurture this, to claim the Constitution as your own. We have a Constitution we can be proud of, now let’s make it work.” Thus, the Constitution is not self-executing, but as was noted by our renowned Constitutional Court Judge, Justice Cameron, in his book ‘Justice’, it requires ‘me, you and all of us to give it life’. How do we give the Constitution life and prevent the expansive rights contained in the Bill of Rights from becoming hollow shibboleths and atrophying? We can only breathe life into the Constitution through undertaking various programmes which are geared to educating on human rights.

At an international level, the importance and power of human rights education (HRE) was recognised by the United Nations leading it to declare 1995-2004 the Decade for Human Rights Education. The United Nations defines HRE as the ‘training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the moulding of attitudes’. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”)  and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (“OHCHR”) in its 2005 report, further defines HRE as “education, training and information aimed at building a culture of human rights.”

In other words, HRE is about raising awareness of human rights and promoting a culture that encourages individuals to demand their own rights and to respect the rights of others. In essence, HRE realises that human rights can only be achieved through an informed and continued demand by people for their protection.

The concept of HRE is increasingly being encompassed in a number of international and regional human rights instruments. In as much as these instruments outline positive state obligations on human rights education, they also form an important framework for national human rights institutions, civil society organisations and community based organisations to work on HRE. In order to give primacy to HRE, the UN General Assembly in 2011 adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training which reaffirms the HRE principles and standards of human rights treaties and acknowledges the fundamental importance of HRE to the realisation of all human rights. To operationalize HRE, the UN General Assembly adopted the World Programme for Human Rights Education. The World Programme for Human Rights Education is currently in its third phase (WPHRE III, 2015-2019) and focuses on strengthening the implementation of the first two phases, which focused on HRE in the primary and secondary school systems and on HRE in higher education and human rights training of teachers & educators, civil servants, law enforcement officials and military personnel, respectively.

HRE is important because it provides the vehicle for us to know our rights. In order for individuals to claim their rights and to hold leaders accountable, they must be aware of these rights. In the context of South Africa, HRE is important in light of the expansive nature of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as well as the transformative vision of our constitutional epoch which is inextricably linked to an egalitarian vision which aims to achieve equality and freedom in our society.  That is, given the fact that the Constitution endows people with a myriad of human rights, and seeks to repudiate the oppressive past and be a bridge to a culture of human rights, it is important for everyone to know their rights. It is illusory to have a Constitution which contains lofty ideals, when the people to whom these ideals apply to do not even know that they are afforded those rights. Such a scenario renders the Constitution a piece of paper with unattainable promises. Therefore, there is a need for constitutional literacy and deeper engagement with the content of human rights if the people are to be able to actively partake in government.

To achieve this we need to redouble our efforts on HRE programmes to ensure the realisation of human rights awareness towards creating and entrenching a culture of human rights in our country. We also need to realise the importance of synergy, co-ordination and co-operation between government, civil society organisations, chapter 9 institutions and other relevant role players.

Going forward the South African Human Rights Commission working with like-minded stakeholders will  continue embarking on creative methods on strengthening HRE in the country.  Opportunities for strategic collaboration have been provided by international frameworks which offer various sectors an opportunity to engage in human rights education and training programmes. For instance, there is an opportunity to come up with a Human Rights Education National Action Plan as well as a national HRE baseline survey to pave way for strategic planning on HRE as well as to initiate political dialogues with policy makers on HRE. Our Constitution is only meaningful if people are aware of their rights and are free to exercise their rights. It is only when we have achieved this that we can say we have made the Constitution to work.

Adv. Ameermia is the SAHRC Commissioner responsible for the right to Housing and Access to Justice, and this is an edited version of his speech delivered at the launch of the CASAC Audit report on Human Rights Education in South Africa in Johannesburg this week.


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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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