Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development,
the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at the Foundation for Human Rights’ Annual General Meeting
held at The Blades, Kameeldrift, Pretoria, 5 August 2017
Chairperson and the Board of the Foundation
The Executive Director and Deputy Director of the Foundation
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, friends
If one asks people what they think the world’s greatest human rights challenges are, one will get a multitude of diverging replies.
But - by and large- most people will say poverty and inequality.
International think-tank, the Institute of Human Rights and Business, recently published its eighth annual list of the Top 10 human rights issues for 2017.
The challenges reflect a stark shift in social, political and economic drivers at the global level. At risk is the erosion of an international system upholding human rights protections and the rule of law, which could impact societies, economies, and businesses.
Inequality tops the list. The Institute reported that as of 2016, the top 1% of the world’s population now owns more than everyone else put together.
Extreme inequality represents both a cause and result of human rights violations: not only do human rights violations drive inequality, erode labour rights, increase discrimination, and raise barriers to political participation, but unequal societies are also more likely to pose challenges to broad-based protection of human rights.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report mentions, as threats to human rights, the dangerous rise of populism.
The report also says the traditional human rights strategy of “naming and shaming” those who violate human rights is no longer working as human rights abusers often revel in their atrocities, rather than hide them.
South Africa, as a developing country, and given our own unique history, continue to be faced with a number of our own particular human rights challenges. We experience that same impact of poverty and inequality in all areas of our human rights work.
In my view, there are two further significant challenges – firstly, people are unaware of their rights or, if they do know about them, they don’t know how to go about to enforce them.
In a landmark judgment delivered recently, involving residents of a block of flats in Berea who had agreed to be evicted without knowing their rights, the Constitutional Court held that judges have an obligation to ensure that evictions will not leave people homeless.
There were 184 residents who faced eviction, with some having occupied the building for more than 2 decades. In 2013, they were served with a notice that they would be evicted.
When the matter was first heard in the Johannesburg High Court a member of the Johannesburg ward committee agreed to the eviction on behalf of the residents. He had not received a mandate to do so from the residents.
In addition, many of the residents could not speak English, could not afford legal representation and only four were present at the High Court when the order was granted.
The Constitutional Court found that the residents had not consented to the eviction because they did not properly know their rights.
Importantly, the Court held that consent to an eviction would only be valid if it is informed.
Which brings me to the second issue, namely that of being informed, of being consulted. During this past week partial judgment in the Grootkraal Primary School case was handed down in the Western Cape High Court.
Grootkraal Primary School is in Oudtshoorn and has existed since 1931. The landowners now want to build a game farm on the land that the school is situated on and have been trying to evict the school since 2011.
The Western Cape Education Department did not oppose the eviction and responded by proposing to move the learners to another school with is 17km away.
On Tuesday, the Court postponed the eviction application and held that before the eviction can take place, the Western Cape Education Department must first comply with a 2011 court order; which it had not yet done. That court order interdicted the MEC and the head of the Western Cape Education Department from closing down or relocating Grootkraal without proper consultation.
The Court held that –
“Extraordinary as it may seem, the July 2011 order has not been complied with”
and the Department -
“did not see the need to consult those most affected by the move: parents and children.”
Both judgments illustrate two important aspects: firstly, people are not properly being consulted or informed about issues which affect their human rights.
Secondly, the poor seem to be even more invisible. One can only imagine how much more the WCED would have consulted parents and learners were the school in an affluent urban area.
In short, the poorer you are, the better the chances of your human rights being infringed or impeded.
Which brings one to the role of civil society, as much of civil society work is often centred round the poor and the marginalised.
Cooperation with civil society bodies is extremely important.
This is evidenced by the fact that the UN has set up the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) as an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations through dynamic partnerships to foster greater coherence around cross-cutting and emerging issues on the UN’s agenda and by facilitating meaningful civil society engagement in UN processes.
Civil society can often reach where government cannot.
Partnership with civil society is crucial for any government, which is why are pleased to continue our very successful partnership with the Foundation for Human Rights.
The FHR has done impressive work over the past financial year.
It has ensured that it met all of the indicators set out in the Annual Performance Plan.
While the implementation of the fieldwork on the Baseline Survey began later than expected, it was completed by December 2016. The analysis of the data began in January 2017 resulting in a first report being ready by 31 March 2017.
The Baseline survey has been completed with 51.1% of the respondents aware of the Constitution.
The Baseline Survey has found that of the 24 897 people surveyed, 12 724 had heard of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights bringing the percentage of people aware of the Constitution to 51.1%.
This figure is an improvement from the figure of 45% determined by the Survey conducted under the previous Access to Justice Programme. If one analyses the 51.1 % in terms of race and age, the level of awareness rises to 57% in the age category of 18-19 years.
The Foundation, in partnership with our Department and civil society, also carried out a number of activities which commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
In this context a number of lessons emerged on the need to carry out more targeted constitutional education particularly for young and old categories.
As attacks on foreign nationals broke out across the country, the Foundation was also able to play a role in quelling the violence through its support to organisations mobilised to deal with countering xenophobia, including diaspora organisations themselves.
The number of people reached by programmes to raise awareness and knowledge of the Constitution amounted to nearly 10 million people, more than 5.8 million of the targeted reach.
These were reached through FHR planned media interventions, which primarily focused on community media and media responses that came as result of FHR publicising its work.
Also the number of grants awarded to civil society organisations working in the human rights sector were more than met the set indicator of 140 contracts as a total of 173 grants contracts were awarded under human rights awareness and Community Advice Offices.
Community Advice Offices are the first port of call for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Our Department is extremely appreciative of all the various initiatives being undertaken by the sector. One aspect that will require a more dedicated focus is the issue of direct funding for these offices.
Funding is often provided for research and training but not to the advice offices themselves.
Our Department, together with the Foundation as our implementation partner, will be looking at ways to facilitate direct funding for the advice offices.
In the same way that Community Advice Offices are often the first port of call for those seeking assistance, so too are paralegals.
Government values the role of paralegals in the quest for justice, and we are aware of the challenges currently facing the sector. This relates to issues of funding and recognition. We are working on legislation to address some of these challenges.
We will be working closely with the sector as well as the advice offices and the FHR in our deliberations. Sustainability of the advice office remains a key issue in this process.
We will also continue our efforts to ensure that people know their Constitutions – for example, in 2016 some 593 000 copies of the so-called “slimline” Constitutions were distributed to Grade 12 learners, this number has increased to 852 959 in 2017.
We are fortunate that we have an extremely good relationship with the FHR and many civil society bodies.
Yet, if one looks globally, it seems that in certain instances government departments and civil society institutions seem to sometimes lose the ability to have robust engagements, to debate on the facts, and on the basis of solid research. Or some activists become so anti-government that they lose objectivity.
Or one finds that the relationship is not built on goodwill. Just as an example, on one of our intersectoral structures where we have various government departments and civil society bodies represented, there is one NGO which, whilst in the structure, very much forms part of the structure - but then goes outside and criticizes both government and the work of the structure – a structure of which it is part and parcel.
Being in partnership means giving credit where credit is due.
In other instances, governments should also not be too sensitive or feel attacked when being criticised.
One is reminded of the words of Dom Helder Camara, an archbishop of an extremely poor Brazilian diocese of Olinda and Recife, who fought abuses by the former military dictatorship in a relentless crusade for human rights, when he said -
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Often many in government will have the same attitude towards NGOs – whilst they are delivering the services to the poor, all is well, but when they start to criticize and raise questions, government departments become defensive, with a detrimental effect on the relationship with civil society. The start to see civil society as an adversary, rather than a potential partner.
We must all be mature enough to realize that we all want the same thing – a prosperous society and democracy where human rights are not only protected, but where they can flourish.
We are all committed to the same ideals.
Let us have robust debates, by all means criticise where criticism is needed, but also give credit where credit is due. We should align our efforts, work together and not against one another.
There is still an enormous amount of work to be done.
Knowledge and awareness of constitutional rights must remain at the forefront of our efforts.
Do not underestimate the impact and trauma caused by poverty and inequality on our society. The challenges we face – both from the side of government and from the side of civil society - are very real.
It would be easy to get despondent, to say the challenges are insurmountable, that it is a bridge to far, but I am continually inspired by the work being done by civil society.
We must continue to build on our successes. In closing, I am reminded of the poem An African Elegy by Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri.
A few lines from the poem read -
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things
And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.
That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.
And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here
And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.”
I thank you.