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Human Rights Day

What are human rights?

Human rights are rights that everyone should have simply because they are human. In 1948, the United Nations defined 30 articles of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It established universal human rights on the basis of humanity, freedom, justice, and peace.

South Africa has included indivisible human rights 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.

The Bill of Rights preserved in our Constitution is the cornerstone of our constitutional and representative democracy. The Constitution as our supreme law means that no laws may be passed that goes against it. The Bill of Rights also comprehensively addresses South Africa’s history of oppression, colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism and other forms of human violations. 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 historically 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 in protest against the Pass laws. This day marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights. It became an iconic date in our country’s history that today we commemorate as Human Rights Day as a reminder of our rights and the cost paid for our treasured human rights.

Apartheid policies
In 1948 the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa and formalised 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.
In 1956 women from all walks of life, protested against the racist Pass laws, when 20,000 women marched to the Union Building in Pretoria, singing “wathint' abafazi, wathint' imbokodo – you strike a woman, you strike a rock”.
Anti-Pass law campaign
The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) proposed an anti-Pass campaign to begin on 21 March 1960. Black men gathered at Sharpeville without passes and presented themselves for arrest. The order was given to disperse, after which the Police opened fire on the crowd of men, women and children. Following the Sharpeville massacre, a number of black political movements were banned by the Nationalist government, but the resistance movement continued to operate underground.

Modern era
When South Africa held its first democratic election, with Nelson Mandela elected as its first democratic President, 21 March, Human Rights Day was officially proclaimed a public holiday.

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, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, whether they are foreign national or not – human rights apply to everyone, equally.
We must remain vigilant and report abuse and cruelty, such as human trafficking, child labour, forced labour and violence against women, children, and the aged and other vulnerable groupings of people.

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 from 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.
  • 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.
  • Protected rights include a healthy environment; housing, health care, food, water and social security.
Parliament’s Role in Human Rights Day
Parliament is guided by the values and principles of the Constitution. The tasks of Parliament are to represent and empower the people, and to facilitate meaningful and active involvement of civil society in its processes. The Constitutional functions of Parliament are to pass laws and oversee executive action. Parliament must ensure that democratic processes become well-known and that they reach all citizens of the country and that the civil liberties of every citizen is maintained.

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 public wishing 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