Human Rights Day: What is there to Celebrate?

By Steuart Pennington

Slightly old flag flying at half-mast

As I ponder on the ineffectiveness, even failure, of National Shut Down Day, especially if it was designed to test our appetite for an Arab Spring or a repeat of the July riots, and I witness the cautionary tactics of the authorities as I see the EFF marching in all of our major CBD’s I begin to wonder if to-morrow, Human Rights Day, there is anything to feel good about?  I find myself thinking ’We’ve had 30 years of this now, 30 years of proclaiming that our constitution is one of the best in the world, 30 years of our leadership urging us to protect our hard-won freedoms in our Bill of Rights.

But also, 30 years of witnessing our decline into an anarchic failing state.

So, no surprises, I’m uncharacteristically, a tad gloomy?’

I was jolted out of this darkness by a friend who writes “The road is long and the hill is steep. It’s 2023 and it feels as though we go from one crisis to the next. There seems little reprieve from the bashes and it’s hard to keep positive and upbeat.

‘Surround yourself with positive people, take a walk in nature, shut out the gloom.’ All such good advice but properly difficult at the moment.

How do we get through when it all feels like it is falling apart? How do we keep up energy levels that are constantly sapped by anxiety? And how do we really think we can do anything good when everything feels bad? It’s a deep trough and one that I have had to claw my way out of…

We cannot give up. We must show up. We have to go into the uncomfortable spaces and do what needs doing. In 2007 we started a little school because we didn’t want our own children to be boarders. ISASA (Independent Schools of South Africa) warned us. Don’t do it they said! Secretly this is sometimes my wish.. but only for an instant because this little school has grown over the years and this year we have 102 little people that rely on us. We have to keep focused for them. I have to dig deep. Time to put on the big girl brooks and get on with it. And then I have to remind myself why it is so important – this is why we do…

Finding the WHY in all we do brings relevance to life. We find our purpose.

And I’m immediately reminded of our resolve, of our resilience, of the determination of millions of South Africans not to allow South Africa to fail.

Then I read in the LifeStyle section of the Sunday Times of our very own Dr. Adriana Marais, director of the Foundation for Space Development Africa who was shortlisted as one of 100 astronauts in the Mars One initiative, a project that aimed to make humans permanent residents on the red planet. When COVID dismantled the project Adriana founded Proudly Human, a research organisation that is running a series of settlement experiments in extreme environments as part of its Off-World project due to be filmed in a documentary series MISSION: Off-World.

Adriana reminds “as the human race, we are facing some of the greatest challenges and opportunities ever, many humans are already living in extreme conditions:

  • 1 billion live with no power;
  • 1.6 billion have inadequate shelter;
  • 6.8 billion live in areas with polluted air;
  • 2.2 billion consume unsafe water;
  • 1 billion are undernourished; and
  • 3.7 billion are without internet access.

With a global population of close on 8 billion people, those are big numbers!

So, if those are the numbers of people globally denied basic human rights how are we doing on our Human Rights delivery with our 60 million in SA?

  • 3297 schools still have pit toilets
  • 9m citizens have no access to electricity (I’m not talking about loadshedding)
  • 15m don’t have access to a safely managed drinking water service
  • 8m live in shacks or traditional housing
  • 1m enter school, 500k reach matric, and +/- 250k enter tertiary education. Only 7% of South Africans have a tertiary qualification, most leave school unprepared for our changing world of work – mostly unemployable.
  • 12% of our adult population have no work (if the formal and informal sector are aggregated)

So when our President concludes in this week’s newsletter “A century after the first bill of rights was adopted in this country, every person in South Africa can now enjoy these freedoms. (No, Mr. President, not according to the above StatsSA numbers) As this government, we will not allow anyone or any group to take these freedoms away from them.” (Surely, but only once you have delivered them!).

On Human Rights Day I am not going to celebrate Government’s performance in the delivery and the protection of our rights and freedoms.

I’m going to celebrate those South Africans, Black and White, and there are millions of us, who are asking ourselves ‘WHY?’ everyday.

For, everyday I read of the extraordinary contributions the Private Sector and Civil Society are making to deliver our rights and freedoms, despite our government, most of whom have been asking themselves ‘WHY?’ for the same 30 years.