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Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP
at the Learner Dialogue on the Constitution Programme, held at Vukuhambe Special School, Mdantsane, East London, 9 March 2018

Programme Director,
The principal and staff members
Parents and members of the School Governing Body
Representatives of government departments
And, most especially, the learners here today
In March we celebrate Human Rights Month.

It is a celebration of human rights for all in our country – fundamental rights that were denied to the majority of our people for a very long time.

It is also a time of reflection and remembrance, as we remember and pay tribute to the many people who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and the liberation from apartheid.

On 21 March 1960, the community of Sharpeville and Langa townships, like their fellow compatriots across the country, embarked on a protest against pass laws. The apartheid police shot and killed 69 of the protesters at Sharpeville, many of them shot while fleeing. Many other people were killed in other parts of the country.

The tragedy came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre and it exposed the apartheid government’s deliberate violation of human rights to the world and that is why 21 March has been declared as Human Rights Day to commemorate and honour those who fought for our liberation and the rights we enjoy today.

Our Constitution is often hailed as one of the most progressive in the world.

It promises democracy and freedom for all.

Many people may think that the Constitution is something that only lawyers know or something that advocates argue about in the Constitutional Court, something that doesn’t really affect their daily lives.

Some of you may only know about human rights and the Constitution from what is taught in your Life Orientation class.

The Constitution, and in particular, the Bill of Rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution, affects nearly everything we do.

Our Constitution sets out many different types of rights, such as the right to health care services, to food, water and social security, the right to basic education, to adequate housing and an environment which is not harmful to our health or wellbeing. These are generally what we call our socio-economic rights.

It also provides for what we call civil and political rights, these rights are rights such as the right to life, to freedom of association, the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of movement and residence.

Human rights are part and parcel of the very things that make a person a person. 

For example, so far today, you have all exercised some of your constitutional rights.

Beside the children’s rights in section 28, the fact that you are here in school means that you are exercising your right to education, which is in section 29.

If you or your family were recently sick and visited a clinic, you would have exercised your right to health care services, which is in section 27.

The fact that you may be friends with whomever you choose is your right to freedom of association, which is in section 18.

Perhaps the most important is the fact that nobody can unfairly discriminate against you on the basis of your race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

And, at the same time, you may also not discriminate against someone else on the basis of any of those grounds.

So what does it mean to be a young person in South Africa today?

Wits University has a research program, called 'Birth to Twenty Plus Study', which tracked the development of almost 2,000 Soweto children's development over a period of 27 years.  The study found that more than 80% of children in their primary school years and more than 90% during their secondary school years reported being victims of violence at home, at school, in their communities or in their intimate relationships.

Stats SA, which is our national statistics service, undertakes a variety of different studies and surveys which help government to make evidence-based decisions.

One of their surveys, which was released last year and deals with vulnerable groups, tell us that 21% of children live with neither their mother, nor their father. Some 15,3% of children live in households which experience hunger and 14,7% % of children aged 15 have not completed grade 7.

So we know that children are vulnerable. 

And that’s why we make laws to protect children, why we as government have social grants – or social security, as we call it – for beneficiaries to protect them against vulnerability and poverty.  That’s why the Department of Basic Education has a number of policies and programs to assist learners and to encourage and support you to stay in school.

Access to basic education is a constitutional right and we want to encourage you to make use of the Second Chance programme.

In January last year the Department of Basic Education announced their Second Chance Programme, which is designed to give Matric students who did not pass their exams and want the chance to redo the exams. 

As you might also have seen in the media, government has committed itself to providing free higher education and training by making available an additional R57bn to fund the phasing in of free tertiary education for students from households earning less than R350, 000 a year.

This is how we are investing in you - as the future of our country.

I know some of the learners here today are from St Thomas School for the Deaf.

Sign language is also mentioned in the Constitution – in section 6, where it says that the Pan South African Language Board must promote and create conditions for the development and use of sign language.

I am told that South African Sign Language (SASL) has now officially been recognised as a home language in our education system. 

Last week, Umalusi – which is the council for quality assurance in education and training - released a report on the inclusion of SASL in the curriculum as one of the examinable subjects for the National Senior Certificate. And as Umalusi said:

"This may be a bigger step than many people realise‚ for in recognising SASL as a home language in our education system‚ the system is by implication recognising deaf culture as a fundamental part of South African culture ….

Today we can say to deaf learners that the system has fully embraced them‚ that their language is valued and respected‚ and that they now have the opportunity to learn and study and be tested through the medium of their home language.”

Ladies and gentlemen, learners,

In closing, I want to leave you with two stories – both stories of young people who inspire us.

The one is quite close to home, from here in the Eastern Cape - in Port Elizabeth – where Mbulelo Dweni tried to get away from his troubled home life with his alcoholic mother, who was a domestic worker, and his stepfather.

He was forced to leave home at the age of 14 and he lived on the streets. A social worker took him to a Youth Centre in Port Elizabeth where he stayed for many years.

He then got a bursary to study and obtained a diploma in business management in 2012 and last year he graduated from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Business School with Foundation Leadership Programme certificate. He told the Herald newspaper, in an interview, that his message for any youth coming from difficult situations is that life can be better for them. He said:

“The challenge is that not all of us are privileged and not all of us can say no to temptation… Hold on to education because you can use it as a vehicle to get to the other side of the world.

The more knowledge you possess, the better decisions you can make.”

Some of you might also have heard about Dr Sandile Kubheka.

Dr Kubheka made history when he became the youngest doctor to qualify in South Africa.

He comes from a humble background, his is the youngest of 5 children. His mother is a single mother who had to work extremely hard to supplement his tuition fees. He went to medical school and completed his MBChB degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal at the very young age of 20.

He told City Press that while he understood the challenges facing young people, they should not be distracted by their difficult circumstances.  He said:

“We have all faced some challenges in life, one way or another, but we can pull through them. I studied through bursaries. This had to be supplemented by my mother’s salary as a sales manager at Shoprite.

It was difficult for her to raise money for tuition fees, meals and my accommodation as she had four other children to take care of.”

 He also said that “giving up should not be an option”.

I hope that today can inspire you to do your best.   Do the very best that you can to achieve your dreams.

Giving up is not an option.  I know that you will make us proud.

Be aware of the rights that the Constitution gives to all of us and respect the rights of others. And in so doing, we can become a truly free and prosperous country.

I thank you.