Human Rights Day
What are human rights?
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.
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.
When 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.
Parliament’s Role in Human Rights Day
Parliament is guided by the values and principles of the Constitution. Parliament’s annual theme for 2011, which embraces these values, is “Celebrating the legacy of freedom through strengthening the link between Parliament and the People”. The tasks of Parliament are to empower the people and get civil society involved in the activities 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.
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, as well as an opportunity for the public to observe debates from the galleries in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Visitors can also arrange meetings with a Member of Parliament and 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