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South Africa's Democracy and Human Rights: Progress and Challenges

03 October 2012

By Deputy Chairperson Pregs Govender, Commissioner responsible for Basic Services & Health Care

The 2nd Annual Public Lecture held on Wednesday 03rd October 2012, at the University of Witwatersrand.

Today, human rights in South Africa, is defined by the Lonmin-Marikana massacre. The images of human beings killed in a hail of bullets ripped through our awareness...raising consciousness about the hard truth that the right to life and other Constitutional rights are still denied to many who are Black, poor and  working class.

The Farlam Commission, which began its work this week, will interrogate what happened at Lonmin-Marikana. On the basis of our Constitutional mandate to protect, promote and monitor the attainment of human rights in our country, the South African Human Rights Commission will make its submission to the Farlam Commission. The HRC will stand alongside others committed to ensuring justice for those who died as well as ensuring that this never recurs in our country.
Apartheid’s social engineering, in conjunction with the global economic order, has resulted in SA being one of the most unequal countries in the world. WealthInsight’s 2012 study shows that 86% of ultra-wealthy (or high net worth) individuals are previously advantaged white South Africans. The majority of those who are poorest are those who were previously disadvantaged, yet substantive equality is enshrined in our Constitution.

Our Constitution asserts that each of us is born with inherent dignity, value and worth. This is our birthright. Yet society imposes identities and assigns value and dignity based on biology and factors such as how poor or wealthy our parents are; the colour of our skin, the texture of our hair, our different abilities, sexual orientation, where we live, the culture or religions we are born into...These are not neutral identities. They influence the way in which those without power are often silenced and made invisible. Power becomes the basis for subordination, discrimination, exploitation and violence. People who are poor seldom access any of their rights, whether civil and political rights such as the right to organise and to peaceful protest or socio-economic rights such as water and sanitation.  No right can be seen as separate from each other – human rights are interdependent, indivisible and equal.

We know that Apartheid, a crime against humanity, was a political, military, economic and social system that denied human rights on the basis of race. It systematically formalised the theft and exploitation of land, mineral, natural and human resources that had begun centuries before.  Apartheid’s ‘homelands’ served as effective dumping grounds for women, children, the elderly and those who had outlived their usefulness after being injured in Apartheid’s regular mining accidents. Single-sex hostels contributed to the destruction of the family system and facilitated the rapid spread of HIV/Aids. Apartheid’s starkest legacy– the informal settlements of make-shift homes of cardboard, tin and other materials contrast to lush green golf courses and  City Centres of gleaming steel and glass. Most of those who live in informal settlements are young and female (under 30 years old). The overwhelming majority are unemployed.

Overcoming Apartheid required focus not just on individuals but on systems. It is a key reason why international solidarity movements successfully focused on corporations contributing to, and benefiting from trade with Apartheid. It is the reason why SA did not go the route of the Nuremburg trials and went the route of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead. However, Archbishop Tutu, who chaired the TRC, was clear about the structural basis of the inequity of Apartheid’s legacy when he called for a wealth tax. SA was applauded for its peaceful transition to Democracy, yet it re-entered a global world order that entrenched existing patterns of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

As an institution established by the Constitution to support democracy, the South African Human Rights Commission grapples with this reality and the fundamental policy contradictions that have prevented the realisation of human rights. For example while the United Nations recognises water as a fundamental human right, economic policy treats it as a commodity aimed at profits for a handful of individuals and corporations.

The Commission’s work on water and sanitation grew out of the recognition of the indivisibility of rights as well as the need to have a systemic approach to individual water and sanitation complaints. The Commission received two particular complaints in the run up to the local elections concerning two local municipalities who built unenclosed toilets in open public spaces. The first was against a municipality led by the official opposition and the second against one led by the ruling party. In both  women and girls were the worst affected.

Building these toilets reflected a fundamental lack of respect for their dignity. The Commission ruled against both municipalities, finding that they had both violated the rights to dignity, privacy and clean environment. However, recognising that this was the tip of the iceberg, the Commission also ruled that national government had to be accountable for what was happening in every single municipality across SA. Across Government one of the biggest challenges is ensuring integration, communication and co-ordination. Often bureaucracies within a single department do not speak to each other, or across departments or different spheres of Government.  The Commission thus asked the Department of Performance of Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) in the Presidency to compile this report. The DPME brought together several departments and presented this report and presented it to us on SA human rights day this year. Government’s findings reflected that 16 million people do not enjoy the right to sanitation. This report is being interrogated against the lived realities of local communities in the Commission’s hearings – to date we have held hearings in Mpumalanga, the North West province, KZN and Limpopo.

The hearings on the right to water and sanitation...the right to life and dignity... were launched in Mpumalanga. Mpumalanga is home to the Kruger National Park, to waterfalls and wetlands...to the Inyaka dam, yet communities living right next to the dam have no water. In Mpumalanga’s informal settlements, over 84% of residents have no sanitation. At the Commission’s hearings people have been standing up fearlessly to speak of their experiences. They speak of daughters reaching puberty and dropping out of rural schools because they have no toilets. They say that traditional leaders, whose power will increase if Parliament adopts the Traditional Courts Bill, often undermine their rights. They demand answers from Government about corruption of public officials by business. They worry about the Protection of State Information Act and how this will further entrench the lack in information and accountability. They ask why mining companies are allowed to pollute the water that they and their families rely on. They observe that businesses, including agribusiness use over 80% of all water yet pay less per litre than households do through user fees.

The Commission has ensured that Government officials from local to national level have been present not to give fancy power-point presentations but to listen, respond to these questions, outline how they will address these, including resource allocations and timeframes. Government cannot trade of one right or group of poor people against another in its policy or budget choices and trade-offs.

SA has laid important foundations for human rights in our Constitution; through international UN obligations such as CEDAW, progressive policies and laws, institutions supporting democracy such as the Constitutional Court, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector. Yet these advances have been undermined by macro-economic choices. The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs for example was implemented in a way that cost SA tens of thousands of women’s jobs. The General Agreement on Trade in Services opened the way for the privatisation and commodification of basic rights including water, education and healthcare. Two global corporations, the French Suez, with its subsidiary Water and Sanitation Services South Africa (WSSA), and Singapore’s Sembcorp, with its subsidiary Silulumanzi, both secured water contracts in South Africa. The SAHRC’s first provincial hearing took place in Mpumalanga, where the local municipality of Nelspruit in 1999, signed a 30-year concession with the Greater Nelspruit Utility Company (GNUC), a subsidiary of Cascal, which was part of the British firm Biwater. Judging from what was presented to the SAHRC hearing in Mpumalanga, the impact on access to water for those who are poor in this province has not been positive.

Globally mining practice often has severe social, labour and environmental impact, contrary to the conditions on which licences are granted. Global corporations often exert undue influence on the policy priorities of national governments - SA’s infamous arms deal is an example of this. Global corporations have patented even seeds, arguing that this is their intellectual property. This together with speculation on food is directly connected to high food prices. The report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Food shows that there is enough food to feed everyone yet almost a billion people across the world go hungry and the food industry makes billion of dollars.  We know that the United Nation was established to hold governments to account for human rights, yet who holds transnational corporations (who often have greater budgets than entire countries), to account for human rights. It is time that SA ensures that economic policy, including trade agreements are scrutinised for their human rights impact. Lonmin-Marikana raises the question of the accountability of both Government and Business for human rights.

Pregs Govender, Deputy Chair SAHRC

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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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