Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa. One would think that after 30 years of democracy that South Africa, a leading jurisdiction in human rights, would be a pretty forward thinking, tolerating society. One might even make the mistake to think that Human Rights Day is quite unnecessary, given the Constitution’s commitment to equal rights.
If you thought either of these things, you would be dead wrong though. In my opinion, many sectors in South African society labour under a misconception that the society that existed in the past was the normal, balanced or right society, and that any variation in its structure is abnormal, unbalanced or wrong. Very much like the phenomenon where men perceive women to make up 50% of a room when women make up only 10%.
This warped way of thinking really came to light in the SAHRC’s finding that conducting welcoming activities in English only, at Stellenbosch University (“SU”), discriminated against Afrikaans students. The entire report reads as though Afrikaans speakers make up 90% of the student population and that English is a completely foreign concept in the Western Cape. This cannot be further from the truth.
In reality, only 40% of the student population are Afrikaans speakers, and all of them had English as a prerequisite to obtain a matric certificate. Afrikaans is but one of eleven official languages in South Africa. Yet, the SAHRC find that only the rights of Afrikaans students were violated when English was the primary language of communication during SU’s welcoming period. This finding unfortunately sets the precedent that some humans are more entitled to human rights than others, and that our Bill of Rights is more committed to upholding the previous status quo, than it is to achieving substantive equality.
Another example of this thinking, is when a leader of an Afrikaner welfare organisation took to Facebook yesterday to praise the BCVO-schools (Die Beweging vir Christelik Volkseie Onderwys) for remaining open on Monday. The reason he gave is that for him, the Afrikaner freedom ideal is more important than human rights. I laughed to myself as I wondered whether someone is going to tell him that Afrikaners are a minority group in South Africa. I wonder if he knows that but for human rights protecting the right to culture and religion, the BCVO-schools would have absolutely no right of existence. I wonder if he realizes that but for human rights, the granddaughter he so praises for being in school, would not have the same right to education as her male peers. I wonder if he realizes that but for human rights, he would not have access to Facebook or free media. I wonder if it he and other like-minded individuals, realise that it is only a matter of chance that they find themselves on the privileged side of history. I wonder if he realises how free the Afrikaner is.
What clearly emerges from this line of thinking is that some sectors of society truly believe that they are entitled to their privileged position because they are right and all others are wrong. They believe that the past status quo is the only status quo. A status quo where everyone has the private right to practice their culture, religion and speak their language, but where all public institutions only recognise the beliefs of one very small group of society who wield all the economic and social power. This has led to a peculiar situation in South Africa where any attempt to neutralise public institutions is met with outcries of discrimination and oppression. This is not because there is ANY actual discrimination or oppression, but because the mere fact that the past status quo is not being actively and legally imposed on everyone in South Africa as the public norm, is seen as discrimination.
Unfortunately, this line of reasoning is not limited to culture or language – it extends to views about gender, gender roles, sex, religion, race and many more perceived norms. The first example that comes to mind when it comes to religion is the fact that Ramadan is starting tomorrow and Easter is two weeks away. South African Muslims are not given public holidays to observe their faith, yet South African Christians are afforded that privilege because historically, those in power in South Africa were Christians.
On this Human Rights Day, I urge everyone not to take their Human Rights for granted. I urge everyone who find themselves in the privileged position to have their reality be the societal norm, not to be short sighted and blind to the oppression of others. I would also like to remind you that recognising your privilege in one aspect of your life, does not diminish your oppression in another. You can be a feminist who would like to burn the patriarchy, and fiercely fight for the rights of black men at the same time; you can support Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) and simultaneously support transgender people of all races. You can take pride in your mother tongue while being mindful of the exclusionary power of language. You can be a follower of one religion, and fight for equal recognition of all other religions. To quote: “more rights for others do not mean fewer rights for you, it’s not pie.”
I would like to drive home on this Human Rights Day, that officially we have turned over a new leaf, but the fight against the societal status quo is still ongoing. To my mind, a truly free society has a completely neutral public sphere that is equally mindful of all of society. It entitles everyone to their own beliefs, but it equally protects everyone from the imposition of the others’ beliefs.