It is Not too Late to Realise Rights in Our Constitution

democracy governance rights
Friday, 22 March, 2013 - 16:06

South Africa should work towards improving the lives of its citizens in order to ensure that they enjoy the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution

There are good people across our society, in government and in civil society, who are deeply committed to our Constitution. They work hard and are committed to changing the reality of unemployment, poverty, inequality and violence. The biggest obstacle they identify is the lack of planning, the silo-mentality, the territorialism and egoism. These factors hinder coordination and cooperation within and between departments and spheres of government. It has negative impact on policy and budget development, preventing the implementation of policies that could shift this reality. The result is a widespread perception that government does not care.

Our Constitution enshrines the right to transparent, open government, meaningful public consultation and participation. Despite this, people who are poor struggle to access basic information about budgetary and other decisions directly affecting their lives. Bureaucrats and politicians often treat them with contempt, fobbing off any responsibility.

Without consulting and listening respectfully to those affected, government often makes disastrous short-term trade-offs. This happened in the municipalities of Makhaza in the Western Cape and Moqaqa in the Free State, both of whom had built unenclosed toilets.

Before the local government elections in 2011, the South African Human Rights Commission ruled that both these municipalities violated the rights to dignity, privacy and clean environment. Both were ordered to enclose the toilets within clear timeframes, in a manner that upheld human rights. They were required to submit regular progress reports to the Commission. This week the Commission issued a subpoena against the Moqaqa Municipality, for failing to report this year on progress on enclosing these toilets.

In these findings, the Commission had broken with tradition by requiring a systemic, structural response from national government. It had ruled that the Department of Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency (DPME) had to provide a status report on the right to sanitation in every single municipality across South Africa, including a plan to redress the problems within clear timeframes and without budget trade-offs with other socio-economic rights.

The Commission used its mandate to conduct public hearings on the rights to water and sanitation in every province. These hearings were held in some of the poorest areas. We invited local, provincial and national government representatives to attend, listen and respond to people’s experience of the failure to provide access to the rights to water and sanitation. Many communities said this was their first experience of direct engagement with government.

The hearings illustrated the interconnection, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. Government heard that DPME’s statistics did not include many people who are poor and often have no services at all. People spoke of how the lack of water and sanitation led to severe health problems for their children; how it undermined the right to education, particularly for their daughters who dropped out of school when they reached puberty and began menstruating; how women and girls regularly brave the danger of being raped in the open fields they have to use; how those who try to assert the right to peaceful protest are tear-gassed and beaten.

Communities shared how businesses - both local and global - contracted to provide and maintain services such as water provision, escape regulation or censure for non-delivery, poor maintenance or corruption of local bureaucrats and politicians.

There was little evidence of a consistent and comprehensive programme of capacity building that could develop the technical and other expertise that poor municipalities lack. Municipalities are responsible for critical competencies without the necessary capacity, resources and power. When municipalities fail or are corrupted by local or global business, (who can have bigger budgets than South Africa’s (SA) budget), many throw up their hands in horror.

Moral outrage is not enough - the structural problems and causes need to be addressed in a systemic fashion. Those who do not enjoy human rights including the right to decent work, water, sanitation, health, housing, education, clean environment or the rights to public participation and peaceful protest remain trapped in SA’s townships, informal settlements and former homelands. In contrast, they believe that those who are wealthy have direct lines to those in power.

The Commission has invited government ministers and their departments including Human Settlements, Water Affairs, Environmental Affairs and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to attend the national hearing on 19 March 2013 at the Pan African Parliament. They were each given a copy of the Commission’s findings and recommendations from our provincial hearings. They will have the opportunity to respond to these within the next month. The Commission's final report will then be able to include government’s concrete responses, including the allegation that they do not care.

A few years ago, in the run up to the last local government elections, government’s Human Rights Day celebration cost South Africans R10 million. It was a day filled with speeches from government leaders. There was food and entertainment. Many leaders re-iterated how much things had improved. The gathered masses applauded the presentation of national or provincial averages, even though these fail to capture the entrenched inequalities that remain mapped out along Apartheid-era Bantustan and township divides.

There was no space for poor people to ask those with power about the problems experienced in accessing human rights...about when the broken pipes that seeped sewage into their homes would be fixed...when their village that was next to a dam would get the water that mines use and pollute.

Since that Human Rights day celebration, we have all seen images of SA’s police killing Andries Tatane, the miners in Marikana and dragging Mozambican, Mido Macia to his death. The brutal killing of human beings, who are black, poor or working class, speaks to the internalisation of Apartheid-era contempt for those killed, from Sharpeville to Soweto.

Our Constitution, with its far-reaching Bill of Rights means nothing for lives snuffed out so casually. It means nothing to those who everyday experience the brutality of poverty and violence. This year (2013), the Commission commemorated Human Rights Day by taking what people said across SA’s provinces to those in power. It is an opportunity to demonstrate collective commitment to realising the rights in our Constitution - it is not too late.

- Pregs Govender is deputy chairperson at the South African Human Rights Commission. This article first appeared on the SAHRC website.

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