To celebrate the fact it was Human Rights Day this week, Projects Abroad volunteers went into the centre of Cape Town to ask South Africans about the issue of Human Rights. Armed with whiteboards, pens and leaflets detailing 26 different human rights, volunteers set out to inform individuals about their constitutionally guaranteed human rights.
Once in town, we asked passers-by to write a ‘right’ that they knew of. It was interesting to see the answers. In particular, ‘the right to say no’ was a commonly scribed phrase. This statement was always written on the whiteboards by women and girls who probably had a feminist subtext to the idea. The right to say no to men who make inappropriate advances towards them is of acute importance to women not just in South Africa, but all over the world.
Apart from the more obvious rights that were written down, such as the right to free speech, privacy and to be safe and secure, many participants wrote and talked of the importance of education and healthcare.
My most interesting conversation was with Tobela, a UCT student, originally from the township of Khayelitsha. He was well-versed in South African politics, explaining that ‘People don’t understand that human rights are written in the constitution, because there are people within the government that take advantage of the people in South Africa. People are illiterate, especially disadvantaged groups, mainly born between 1962–1994, they cannot understand what is written in the constitution.’ His opinions on the education system were similar to many I interviewed, particularly Dwayne, another UCT student. ‘Four, five, six year olds are sitting at broken desks. And I think that is quite pathetic. Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they can’t have the same access to education as everybody else.’
What should be done about the education system then? ‘More bursaries for underprivileged children,’ said Yasir, another critic of education within low-income areas. Dwayne was more scathing of the type of education taught in schools. ‘Certain kids are not all about the books… they’re more into acting and drama skits. Education isn’t supposed to have a mainstream. South Africa is just focusing on the mainstream.’ Yet despite the many suggestions I listened to, I couldn’t help but feel sad to hear the common remonstrance that education in the townships was condemning millions of children to pedagogic disaster.
Despite the grievances people expressed, the morning was more fun than mopey. The team from Projects Abroad enjoyed their interaction with the public while the public themselves enjoyed the experience. Many wrote interesting, though sometimes more wishful ideas on rights. The right to shelter, a clean environment and to not be abused were common views. The right to prostitution and smoke weed were more captivating ideas while one woman wrote for the right ‘For males to not compliment my big ass.’ Constitutional lawyers would probably say that fits under the ‘right not to be harassed’ category.
What made the exercise more compelling though was that it took place right in front of Cape Town City Hall. This is the building where Mandela made his first public speech after his release from jail. He called for free political activity and for reconciliation. The location for the human rights event was ideally suited therefore to educate people on their universal human rights. I asked one man if South Africa was a free country; ‘Yes, today we can walk free, we can mix with other people of other races without obstacles.’ If I had asked him that question thirty years ago in the same spot, he would have said no, but more amazingly, it is unlikely I would have been allowed to ask that question without some kind of consequence.
It is a truly glorious notion to realise how far South Africa has come; from a racist, pariah state to a country with one of the most progressive constitutions on Earth. I learnt something more valuable though. Education and human rights are intertwined. The educated know their human rights and the uneducated don’t. Those who don’t know about human rights need to get reading, because if you don’t know them, you have a voice that can’t be heard.
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