Panel discusses the meaning of human rights

Students attend human rights panel discussion
Students attend human rights panel discussion

By Liivha Rasimphi, first year BCom student


Bringing together a diverse audience, the ‘What Do Human Rights Mean To Me?’ panel discussion took place at Rhodes University on 20 March 2019, as part of Human Rights Week organised by the Office of Equity and Institutional Culture.

Given that human rights are not equally and equitably accessible to all members of South African society, are they at all a meaningful premise on which to build a nation? This question was discussed by a panel including Seth Mazibuko, the Chancellor of the June 16 Youth Development Foundation and prominent leader in the 16 June 1976 uprising, Londiwe Mntambo, MA candidate at the Politics and International Studies at Rhodes University and Nkosinathi Mzolo, Law lecturer at Rhodes University with MA (Law) from UKZN.

Mazibuko, who refers to Human Rights Day as ‘Heroes Day’, said, “The 21st if March has got so much against human rights, that I find it strange this day is referred to Human Rights Day at all.”

He believes that the occurrence of the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, which is similar to what happened during the Soweto Uprising on the 16 June, is being concealed by the decolonisation of South Africa.

He believes the change in name from ‘Heroes Day’ to ‘Human Rights Day’ erases the history of the African people involved and takes away from the African values, virtues and victories. “And it is inhumane to erase the history of people,” he said.

This reason, together with the persisting inequality in gender where men are still in the forefront of the country and women and children are still being molested and killed, illustrate that human rights are still greatly being undermined, Mazibuko explained.

As a resolution, he stated that we need more than written documents – we need proper ethical practices and values that embody humanity, humility and human rights.  

Mntambo, who referred to Human Rights Day as ‘Sharpeville Day’, expressed her dislike of the lack of inherited memory that comes with referring to the day as the generic-sounding Human Rights Day. ‘Sharpeville Day’, she said, would evoke a truer narrative of the events that took place on that day and what this day symbolises.

“There are assumptions concerning the Bill of Rights, whereby it enshrines things into documents, and puts in ‘conditions’, that are measured by reasonableness,” she said. Furthering her discussion, she illustrated how words such as “access” are actually limitations resulting in satisfactory conditions as opposed to necessary conditions.

She added that “the significance of the day has more than what is perceived, and it deters from the history by romanticising struggle. The ideological alternatives of human rights, therefore, creates an exclusion of poor people".

Mzolo explained human rights from a legal perspective, specifically the attitude of the Constitution towards human rights.  

“Law, justice and value. Those are the three formulas that justifies the Constitution,” he said. “Unlike law, justice is neutral and central,” he stated, “Therefore, human rights laws should be regarded as just.”

He added that the perpetual ineffectiveness of justice in our society occurs because the law is more likely to protect the elite. Emphasising this view further, he stated that “during the apartheid regime, the unjust conduct of suppression was justified by it being a law”.  

“So from which lens does equality qualify?” he enquired. As according to the law, different circumstances favour certain people. He therefore suggested that equity should precede the law and take into account the circumstances of individuals as well.

“Equity before equality,” he affirmed. “A law that fails to be sensitive will further divide South African society due to specific considerations and the system that speaks only to the few.”