Human Rights Day, which takes place tomorrow in South Africa, is both a commemoration and a celebration. We commemorate the dozens of people who lost their lives at Sharpeville on the 21st March 1960, and the countless others who died fighting for liberation during apartheid. We celebrate how far we have come as a country since 1994 in recognising our citizens’ basic human rights. These rights form the cornerstone of our democracy, and are enshrined in our Constitution, which is recognised as one of the most progressive in the world.

Chapter two of the Constitution contains the Bill of Rights, the content of which was largely informed by two documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the South African Freedom Charter.

The United Nations was formed just one month after the end of the Second World War, with the aim of maintaining international peace and security, and ensuring that the atrocities of the Second World War would never happen again. In December 1948, at the third United Nations General Assembly held in Paris, 48 countries voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now the accepted international standard for human rights. The Declaration proposed the then novel idea that people have fundamental rights that must be protected no matter where they live or who they are. In other words, the universal human rights as laid out in the Declaration, supersede regional rights created by the state.

The crowd at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955
The crowd at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, 1955

On the other side of the world, in South Africa, the rights of the majority of the population were systematically being crushed. In 1955, in response to the increasingly repressive government, the ANC sent 50,000 volunteers into the townships and the countryside in order to collect ‘freedom demands’ from the people. Rather than working within the existing confines of society, the documents that the ANC were busy collating would call for a fundamental restructuring of all aspects of South African society. The resulting Freedom Charter was officially adopted on Sunday the 26th June 1955 at the Congress of the People, which was attended by about 3,000 people. The meeting was broken up by police on the second day, but by then the Charter had already been read in full.

Only eight countries abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, with South Africa being one of them. The year that the Declaration was signed, is also the year that the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa, and is generally accepted as the beginning of apartheid. Perhaps if the world had not just witnessed the horrors of WWII, and the consequences of Adolf Hitler’s philosophy of racial supremacy, the international community may have been more accepting of the apartheid ideology. Thankfully, they were not. However, even with pressure from the world powers, it still took nearly half a century to overpower the apartheid government. This freedom that was so hard fought for is acknowledged tomorrow when we celebrate one of our most important public holidays, Human Rights Day.

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