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Human Rights Day

What are human rights?
Human rights are rights that everyone should have simply because they are humans, but human rights are also a product of historical and social situations. In 1948, the United Nations defined 30 articles of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations succeeded the League of Nations, and the Universal Declaration is one of its crucial platforms. It founds universal human rights on the basis of freedom, justice, and peace. South Africa supports the Universal Declaration, and we have included many of its precepts in our own Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The articles of our Constitution can only be changed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which means it is difficult for anyone, including the government, to take away the basic rights of a citizen.

Just as the Constitution is our supreme law, and no laws may be passed that go against it, the Bill of Rights is the cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. The Bill of Rights also comprehensively addresses South Africa’s history of colonialism, slavery and apartheid. The Bill of Rights embeds the rights of all people in our country in an enduring affirmation of the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.
Human Rights Day, 21 March
Human Rights Day in South Africa is linked with 21 March 1960, and the events of Sharpeville. On that day 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered to protest against the Pass laws. It was more than a protest against the Pass Laws of the apartheid regime. It was an affirmation by common people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights, and it became an iconic date in our country’s troubled history.
Apartheid policies
In 1948 the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa and began to formalise segregation in a succession of laws that gave the government control over the movement of Black people in urban areas. The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 narrowed the definition of Blacks with permanent residence in towns and cities.  Legally, no Black person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit from the local authorities, and on arrival in an urban area, the person had to obtain a permit within 72 hours to seek work. The Reference Book, or Pass, included a photograph, details of place of origin, employment record, tax payments, and encounters with the police. It was a criminal offence to be unable to produce a Reference Book when required to do so by the police, and Black men in particular had to carry identification with them at all times.
In 1956 women of all races protested against Pass law requirements, when 20 000 women of all races marched to Pretoria.
Anti-Pass law campaign
The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) proposed an anti-Pass campaign to begin on 21 March 1960. Black men were to gather at Sharpeville without their reference books and present themselves for arrest. The order was given to disperse, after which the Police opened fire with sharp-point ammunition on the crowd of men, women and children. Following the Sharpeville massacre, a number of black political movements were banned by the Nationalist government, and the resistance movement went underground.
Modern era
When the African National Congress was democratically elected to government, with Nelson Mandela as its leader, 21st March was instituted as the South Africa Human Rights Day and included in the list of national holidays of democratic South Africa. On Human Rights Day, South Africans are asked to reflect on their rights and how to protect themselves against violations.
Human Rights Day reminds us of the suffering and loss of life that accompanied the most recent struggle for human rights in South Africa, but it also highlights the slavery of the Colonial era. It is why we must also ensure that modern forms of slavery such as human trafficking and forced labour are addressed and eradicated.
What are your rights?
In terms of the Bill of Rights everyone has a right to life, equality and human dignity.
  • All persons have a 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 of forced labour, servitude and slavery. 
  • All persons have a right to privacy and to exercise political rights; all have a right to access to information and just administration action. They have rights when arrested, detained and accused, and must have access to courts. Protected rights include a healthy environment; housing, health care, food, water and social security.
  • All have a right to freedom of movement and 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.  
Parliament’s Role in Human Rights Day
Parliament is guided by the values and principles of the Constitution. The tasks of Parliament are to empower the people and get civil society involved in its processes, representing and acting as a voice of the people, as well as fulfilling its Constitutional functions of passing laws and overseeing executive action. Parliament must ensure that democratic processes become well-known and that they reach all citizens of the country.
Visiting Parliament
We are proud to invite local and international visitors to our Parliament, the receptacle and guardian of the legacy of human rights in South Africa. The Public Education Office offers free tours of Parliament, and the Public Relations Office assists members of the publicwishing to observe debates from the galleries in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Visitors can also attend Public Hearings or Committee meetings.
For more information contact the Public Education Office of Parliament.
Contact Person:        Nhlanhla Mrwerwe
Telephone:               (021) 403 2266
Fax:                          (021) 403 3817 / 403 3303