Thank you President Mandisa Monakali, the founder of this great institution, for inviting me to be your Speaker tonight. I am looking forward to reflecting with you on the amazing work of Ilitha Labantu as a champion of human rights. I am particularly pleased that you have chosen the theme: Evolution of Human Rights and its Effects on Women’s Rights.
We are meeting at a critical moment in our troubled world. We are facing major Planetary Emergencies in the form of climate change, and disruptions of patterns of human life as we have known it to date. We are also facing pandemics, the likes of which we experienced with HIV/AIDS and COVID-19; and much more is to be expected. We are witnessing wars of impunity started by the powerful against the weaker ones. The case of the Russian War against Ukraine beggars belief given the enshrined rights of countries under the UN to sovereignty. The Israeli war and occupation of Palestine, with its roots in the very early post-W11 war period when victors of the war established the Human Rights Treaty in 1948, those same victors promoted the occupation by Jewish people of the land of Palestine. The multiple civil wars in post-colonial Africa have their roots in the colonial divide and conquer that has pitted Africans against one another.
We are also meeting at a time of great opportunity. The world is much more interconnected and interdependent than it has ever been. The internet and other technological developments have shrunk distances between us across time and space. The opportunity is for us to harvest the lessons of inspirational leadership by people across the globe, who have chosen to liberate themselves from the focus on HAVING material goods at all costs, to focus on BEING the best versions of themselves as Human BEINGS promoting wellbeing for all on a healthy planet.
Women, young people and men are coming together in some of the most stressed countries and communities to talk about how they can shape and build futures they dream of. Africa as the Mother Continent as well as the place where the first human civilisation was established, has the youngest population profile – 1,4bn in 2022 with a median age of 18,8years. Many of these young people whom I encounter in different walks of life are self-liberating and reimagining and rebuilding their futures in both urban and rural areas. Many of the young people in our own country are already building those futures.
In this talk I would like to focus on the following points:
What have been the gains of the last 75 years globally, and the last 30 years in South Africa in Human Rights terms?
What are the lessons of those gains?
Why the need to separate Women’s Rights from Human Rights? Are Women not Human?
What can we do better going into the Future?
What are the Gains of the last 75 years/30 years?
I am a living beneficiary of the gains of the last 75 years of the UN Human Rights Declaration in 1948. I was born at the end of 1947 and stood in pole position as a black girl child in our beloved country to benefit from this HR Declaration. Jan Smuts, the then Prime Minister of South Africa, was after all one of the promoters of this declaration and the UN Charter of Human Rights that embodies its details.
The main achievements of the Charter of Human Rights with its 30 Articles, is that it details the inalienable entitlements that come from simply being born human - regardless of all the characteristics that are part of the richness of our diversity as human beings. Scientists tell us that we share 99,99% of genetic material – the ,01% is what accounts for the colour of our hair skin and other looks. The inalienable human rights we are entitled to are protected by several United Nations institutions including: the UNCR; the International Criminal Court of Justice; UN ECOSOC; UNICEF; and UNWOMEN.
My benefits as a black girl child born just before the UN Declaration of HR were not realised without a fight. The implementation of the Charter of Human Rights with its emphasis on the equality of all human beings did not necessarily ensure that there would be no exclusion of human beings on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation etc. Jan Smuts came back from the UN in 1948 and continued the colonial governance system that dispossessed our ancestors, until his United Party was ousted by the National Party with their more overt racism.
The United States of American also continued to exclude African Americans from the opportunities to thrive. The British continued their colonial extractive economic and political system that has devastated much of the world where poverty has become embedded in societies in Most of the World. At the end of the day the practice of power and politics shows that some humans and more equal than others – echoing George Orwell’s 1945 novel - Animal Farm!
Here in my own country the gains of the transition from apartheid to post-1994 Constitutional Democracy have been significant. Under President Rolihlahla Mandela, we experienced the dignity and joy of the restoration of our entitlement to human rights in their fulness and celebrated the dawn of a new day of equality for all under the law. We experienced the power of our voices translated into policies and practical actions to give effect to socio-economic rights to all. We celebrated the freedom of expression and association and many other rights.
The Mandela government produced progressive policies and laws, unfortunately the implementation of these was not equal to the task. Too many of those in government focussed on their own benefits and continued the state capture invented by colonial governments before them. Alas 30 years later many of our fellow citizens, including the women and children whom the Ilitha Labantu is championing, are still waiting for the promises made on Freedom Day, that are yet to become a reality for all!
What are the Lessons Learnt at Global and Local Levels over the last 75/30 yrs?
The most important lessons we have learnt and continue to learn are the following:
Human rights inalienable as they are, have to be fought for, and defended – not once, but lifelong. To be a citizen is to be a guardian of democracy and its fruits. South Africans let down their guard post-1994. It is time to regroup and fight for our rights and exercise our responsibilities at the person al, professional and political levels.
To effectively assert and claim one’s rights, one has to be self-liberated from the undermining prisons that powerful people place those whom they would like to exploit. Racism has no place in society – there is only one race – the human race. Sexism and discrimination against people with diverse gender expressions is inhuman.
Self-liberated people are those who invest the time and energy to travel inside themselves to learn anew what it means to be human. We are all unique beings – celebrate whom you are! To be human is to have self-respect, respect for others and commitment to fairness and compassion. In my culture and language we call it Botho/Ubuntu.
Human beings are inextricably interconnected and interdependent within the web of life. To be human is to be part of nature, not above it. Motho ke motho ka babangwe batho – untu u’ngumtu nga’banye abantu. We cannot expect to have sustainable wellbeing and enjoy the comforts of life in isolation from our fellow citizens and other beings in our communities, society and world.
Solidarity is an essential tool of asserting and defending against violations of human rights. Through solidarity much has been achieved by working together for a vision of an equitable future where everyone enjoys wellbeing and thrives. Let us learn from workers, student activists, liberation activists, etc.
Why Do we have to assert Women’s Rights over and above Human Rights?
There is something odd about the need to focus on Women’s rights in our world today. Are women not human? In Africa women are not only the mothers of all human beings but are also the keepers of the seed of all life – human and plants. I grew up with my great grandmother as my care giver, and she was entrusted with preserving and protecting the seed after every harvest, to ensure that future planting seasons are well provided for. So why are these life giving human beings seen as a threat or being threatened by those who stand to benefit from their care and nurture?
One of the most devastating legacies of colonial conquest and slavery in Africa has been the disruption of healthy human relationships at the personal, family, community, wider social and global levels. Gender relationships were nurtured across the continent with sensitivity and care. Matrilineal societies, particularly prevalent in West Africa, but also found amongst some ethnic groups across the continent, were disrupted by European colonialists who came from authoritarian male dominated societies.
In addition, the impact of disruption of family life through the migrant labour system that extracted men from rural areas, away from their families, humiliated them through the conditions of service, including strip searches, housing them in hostel dormitories with no privacy even for the most intimate of human acts. The legacy, and on-going practice of this system, is responsible for the toxic masculinity behind the horrendous gender based violence in our country. We are considered the rape capital of the world with 10 818 cases reported in first quarter of 2022, but we know this is only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, young men growing up without fathers, become vulnerable to being recruited into this violent culture.
Women’s Rights are not only part of the global UN Human Rights regime, but embedded in our constitutional democracy, through our founding Constitution. Yet. As I suggested above rights have to be asserted and defended. We women in South Africa have taken too long to snap out of the prison of patriarchal values and self-liberate our femininity.
Just as we as young inexperienced university students did in 1969 when we self-liberated from being called non-Europeans/non-whites, we as women need to self-liberate from the shackles of patriarchy and its violent values. We need to self-liberate as women so we can liberate the men – our partners, sons, grandsons and leaders - from the toxic masculinity that is undermining our society. Any man who has to beat another person – especially a defenceless child or woman, is a man who has lost his humanity and manhood. Violence is a symptom of a person who lacks self-respect and respect for others.
Just as we championed black consciousness and black solidarity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we need to champion self-liberation of women from the trappings of the patriarchal system, and to promote solidarity to protect ourselves and others from the abuses visited upon us. We need solidarity to raise our voices against an ineffectual law enforcement system that allows criminals to enjoy impunity in violating the rights of others. We have a Min of Police, Bheki Cele, who cannot explain why 4000 police officers facing criminal charges are still in their jobs! We should not be surprised that we have the unenviable status as the rape capital of the world.
What can we do Better for a Future where Human Rights and Everybody’s Business?
First, let us make sure that we take up the challenge and learn the lessons of history to ensure that we are self-liberated citizens of this beautiful country. Anthropologist, Margaret Mead said this: Never under-estimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world – in fact it is the only thing that ever changed the course of history.
We have to go back to organising men and women across generations and engage in conversations to enable our children to learn the values of Ubuntu and live them in their personal, professional and political lives.
Second, women are the majority across the world and in our society, yet they continue to defer leadership to men. Men in leadership are there because we voted for them to do so. When are we to band together to vote for a women dominated slate in our government at the local, provincial and national levels? It is in our hands.
We need to dilute toxic masculinity values with feminine Ubuntu values to ensure that the seeds of the future of wellbeing for all in a healthy planet are protected.
Finally, at the continental and global levels feminine values are sorely missing. The tendency to settle scores violently need to be replaced by willingness to sit with those we disagree with to settle disputes through conversations that are mutually beneficial. There is enough for all of us to enjoy wellbeing and to lead meaning lives in a peaceful world if only we learn to resist the temptation to be greedy, but to share.
Imagine a world governed by Ubuntu values! Imagine a world where everyone’s rights are matched with responsibilities! Imagine a world where all people enjoy the freedom to be the best versions of themselves! That world is possible. That world starts with you liberating yourself, and championing the self-liberation of others. It is in your hands today.
Old Granary, Cape Town.