The commemoration of Human Rights Day in South Africa this year coincided with the 16th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic, which gives full expression to its democratic ideals.
This year’s official observances were attended by President Jacob Zuma on 21 March at Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, in Soweto.
Also at the event were the Congress of the People (Cope) president, Mosioua Lekota; the deputy president of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe; the City of Joburg mayor, Parks Tau; the Gauteng premier, Nomvula Mokonyane; and the minister of justice and constitutional development, Jeff Radebe.
Although there was much debate about why the official gathering was held in Soweto instead of Sharpeville, where the massacre took place in 1960, Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown also holds much significance for the day.
Keith Khoza, the spokesperson for the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa, said: “South Africans must accept that Sharpeville is a shared history. South Africans lost fellow South Africans … It is a lesson to all South Africans that what happened [in Sharpeville] should not happen today.”
Lekota also said that Human Rights Day was for all South Africans and not just for a particular area. “When Indians were forcibly removed it was a human rights violation,” said Lekota.
In his message of support, he said political parties had a duty to educate South Africans that human rights were not about the Sharpeville and Langa massacres.
Walter Sisulu Square
The square has historical significance as the meeting point of over 3 000 representatives of apartheid resistance organisations on 26 June 1955. This group organised themselves as the Congress of the People and it is here that the Freedom Charter was born.
The charter is a document outlining the group’s views on a commitment to a non-racial South Africa. It is characterised by its opening demand: “The people shall govern”.
It calls for democracy and human rights for all, land reform, labour rights, and nationalisation. It is the base from which the Constitution of South Africa was derived.
The charter spells out that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white; that South Africa will never be prosperous or free until all people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; and, only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief.
The square has 10 pillars that document what the intent of the charter. Written on each is one of its 10 clauses: the people shall govern; all national groups shall have equal rights; the people shall share in the country`s wealth; the land shall be shared among those who work it; all shall enjoy equal human rights; all shall be equal before the law; there shall be work and security; the doors of learning and culture shall be opened; there shall be houses, security and comfort; and, there shall be peace and friendship.
Paying tribute to those who lost their lives
The commemoration of Human Rights Day on 21 March pays tribute to those who lost their lives in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960, during a peaceful protest against the pass laws.
In Kliptown this year, the atmosphere was celebratory, with about 500 people outside the Walter Sisulu Hall and about 150 seated inside.
Zuma said: “On this solemn occasion we extend a special greeting to all South Africans who suffered gross human rights violations during colonial oppression and the apartheid period.
“In their memory, we worked hard to develop a progressive Constitution of the Republic, which enshrines the human rights of all our people, in a Bill of Rights.”
Zuma said that the Constitution had its roots mainly in five documents or processes – the 1923 Bill of Rights, the African Claims of 1943, the Women’s Charter of 1954, the Freedom Charter of 1955 and the ANC’s 1988 Constitutional Principles for a Democratic South Africa.
On the day, Lekota, previously an ANC leader and now the head of Cope, a breakaway party, hugged Zuma and reiterated that the day was for all South Africans and not for a single party.
Zuma, Tau, Mokonyane and Radebe walked along the square to the 10 pillars, where they read what was enshrined in the Freedom Charter before moving to the hall to address people on the importance of the day.