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Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP at the launch of the SEJA Baseline Survey 2018, held at the Women’s Jail, Constitution Hill, 26 March 2018

Programme Director,
The European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Mr Stavros Lambrinidis, and representatives from the EU
The EU Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, Dr Marcus Cornaro
The Chairperson of the Foundation for Human Rights, Ms Thoko Mpumlwana, and Board Members of FHR
The Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Prof. Bongani Majola
The CEO of the FHR, Ms Yasmin Sooka
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen, friends

There is always something allegorical, or almost mystical, about Constitution Hill.

If one reads more about it, on constitutionhill.org, it says that there is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa – I would even argue, in the world - that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of Constitution Hill’s Old Fort,  Women's Jail and Number Four.

Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Fatima Meer were all imprisoned here.

I often think that if only these walls could talk, what stories they would tell…

This past weekend Constitution Hill, in partnership with the human rights and social justice fraternity, presented the inaugural Human Rights Festival.

The Human Rights Festival commemorated Human Rights Day which pays homage to all those who lost their lives in the fight for democracy, particularly during the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960. The festival also highlighted the work of social justice organisations and provided an opportunity to celebrate the gains made, but more importantly, to highlight the action that is still required to realise social justice.

The festival included three days of activism, debates, art, culture, exhibitions, books, poetry, comedy, film and music.  There was a music festival, a poetry festival, a film festival and a book fair.

At the book fair one of the featured books was the autobiography of well-known struggle author and poet, Don Mattera.

SA History Online provides a glimpse of the life of this struggle writer. He was born in Western Native Township, now called Westbury. His grandfather was an Italian immigrant who married a Xhosa or Khoisan woman from the Cape. Mattera’s father was classified Italian by the authorities, while his mother was a Motswana domestic worker in Johannesburg.

Mattera grew up in the mixed area of Sophiatown and it was during the campaign against the removals of Black, Coloured, and Indians from Sophiatown that Mattera became a political activist. As a result of his political activities, he was banned by the apartheid government and spent a number of years under house arrest.

His autobiography, which was featured at the book fair, is called Memory is the Weapon.

I would like to read parts of an extract from it -

“Once a policeman called at our home to inform us that one of our relations – one B Mattera – had been arrested for a pass offence.

I hurried down thinking it was my father because his initials were B G. I saw a man called Basil inside the prison courtyard. I enquired whether he had seen my father because our information was that a B Mattera had been arrested.

He smiled sheepishly, almost remorsefully, and said: ‘I hope you don’t mind Donny, but I gave them my name as Basil Mattera.’ Please tell that Boer over there I’m your uncle!’ His voice fell to a pleading whisper.

‘Meneer,’ I said to the obese desk sergeant, ‘that man over there is my uncle. He’s a Coloured; can you please release him?’

The policeman shook with derisive bursts of laughter…. If he’s your uncle, then I was the blerry midwife!’

His laughter rang through my ears, into my stomach and fell deep into the soles of my feet.

Suddenly a group of men… moved out of the queue to speak to a man at the exit point of the reclassification office. Amid quiet whispers and the shaking of heads, I detected concern on their faces. One by one they moved towards the huge gates, all of them touching their hair.

I approached one of them. ‘Excuse me big man, what’s happening? Why are you guys all pulling your hair like that and where are you going?’

‘To the barber-shop, boy; we’re all dashing out for a haircut!’

‘Why?’

Pointing over his shoulder with his thumb, he said: ‘Those bastards in there, those dogs are using matchsticks and pens to classify us!’

‘Matchsticks? Pens?’

‘Yes’ came the quick response. ‘Matchsticks and fokken pens, which they run through our hair! And when the pen or matchstick gets stuck, the Boers shout: “Go to Room 47 and get a pass!”

His words stung everyone into silence. People began looking at each other’s heads.

Those with soft, straight hair smiled confidently and one or two actually combed their heavily-greased hair to the open envy of some of the more curly-haired, who were now vanishing from the queue. A very dark-skinned man smiled quietly. He had shaved off all his hair: matchsticks and pens cannot get stuck on a bald head.

Heart-rending stories, filled with biting humiliation and anguish, daily made newspaper headlines in the late fifties. Some victims of the reclassification trauma chose suicide to bail them out of their absurd misery. Whole and stable families were shattered overnight as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were ripped apart by the cruel laws of race separation.

The dark- and fair-skinned Gabriel brothers were split; one to ‘pure’ and the other to ‘native’ pigeon-holes and never the twain to meet in the same township or the same house. This was the Law.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

What all of these people – Mattera, Mandela, Sisulu, Slovo and all the others imprisoned here – have in common is that they were striving for the same ideal: a nation built on democracy, freedom and equality, and a constitution to guarantee fundamental human rights. 

Today we need to protect and promote those hard-won freedoms and human rights.

Part of doing so, means strengthening our efforts to transform the justice system through developing and implementing policies that bring about improved access to justice and making people aware of their rights.

As much as our Constitution has been lauded across the globe as being a highly progressive and transformative one, a progressive Constitution alone will not realise rights if the people living within our country do not understand what it entails.

It is imperative for us to ensure that every person within our borders knows and understands the Constitution.

Many people in South Africa are poor and live in rural areas of the country and are often the most vulnerable - with women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly and lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and intersex persons being exposed to violence and related harm.

Whilst efforts have been made by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, in collaboration with civil society organisations, to educate people about their rights and responsibilities, much still remains to be done.

The Foundation for Human Rights is a valued partner in our efforts.

The Socio-Economic Justice for All (“SEJA”) Baseline Survey’s final sample consisted of 24 897 interviews and provides us with very useful information in order to assess where we stand on constitutional and human rights awareness.

Later this afternoon we will have a presentation on the findings and recommendations of the survey, but there are 3 areas that I want to highlight -

Firstly, there is the issue of constitutional awareness.

Respondents were asked if they had heard of the Constitution of South Africa and if they had heard of the Bill of Rights in Chapter 2 of the Constitution.

Slightly more than half (51%) of respondents had heard of either.

Male respondents were more likely (55%) than their female counterparts (47%) to have heard of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

With regards to the race of respondents, whites were the most likely (68%) to have heard of either, followed by Indian/Asian respondents (61%).  While the majority (56%) of coloureds had heard of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, less than half (48%) of black African respondents had heard of either.

What this tells us is that there is still an enormous task ahead of us in raising levels of constitutional and human rights awareness. If persons or communities are not even aware of their rights, how can they possibly enforce them?

The second area, and one which is the subject of much debate and discourse in our country at the moment, is the issue of land:

Almost three quarters (72%) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that land should be returned to black people where it was taken away.

As one would expect, there were differences across the races. While 77% of black Africans agreed, this was true for 63% of coloureds, 61% of Indians and less than half (45%) of whites.

Rural residents were more likely (77%) to agree than those living in urban (73%) or metropolitan (67%) areas.

However, despite these levels of support for returning land to black people where it was taken away, three quarters (75%) of all adults agreed that no-one should be allowed to take their land away from them or their families. The findings were consistent across men and women as well as across black Africans (74%), coloureds (77%), Indians/Asians (76%) and whites (73%).

What this tells us, is that government’s approach to the issue of land is the correct approach – there is no simple solution. And I want to echo the words of President Ramaphosa in Parliament when he said:

"We are going to handle this matter in the way we've always handled difficult issues in our country: by dialogue, discussion, engagement, until we find good solutions that will take our country forward. …

South Africans must therefore navigate this issue not by fear or distrust. Their choices must reflect their hopes, not their fears…. Some have become very hopeful, some have become very fearful. It is a question that we will continue to handle with care and responsibility as government.”

Thirdly, there is the issue of whether our people feel that they are being heard. One of the areas that respondents were specifically asked about, is civic engagement and enforcing their rights. They were asked how easy or difficult they thought it was to do the following:

  • Contact their local councillor if they wanted to express their point of view
  • Contact a Member of Parliament if they wanted to express their point of view
  • Challenge a violation of their rights in court
  • Approach the Constitutional Court directly to assert their rights
  • Lodge a complaint with a Chapter 9 institution such as the Public Protector or Human Rights Commission.

Some 56% of respondents thought that contacting their local councillor was very difficult or difficult. The highest proportion of respondents (88%) thought that contacting a Member of Parliament was the most difficult.

Some 76% thought it was difficult or very difficult to challenge a violation of their rights in court, while 82% thought it was difficult or very difficult to approach the Constitutional Court. Some 82% thought it was difficult or very difficult to lodge a complaint with a Chapter 9 body, like the South African Human Rights Commission or the Public Protector.

What these figures show is that people generally feel that enforcing their rights is either difficult or very difficult.  

More than two decades after dawn of democracy, this shouldn’t be so.  In fact, active citizenship is a fundamental pillar of the NDP and goes to the heart of the developmental state.

This is why the Baseline Survey is so useful. The information will greatly assist in helping us, as government, to focus and tailor-make our policies and programs where they are most needed and where they can have the biggest impact.

It also helps us as government to further partner with civil society in bringing about socio-economic change.

It would also be useful to compare the findings of this Baseline Survey to those of the previous Baseline Survey which was undertaken in 2011.

Of course, we could not have done this without the support of the Foundation for Human Rights and the European Union.

And that is why we value our partnership with the EU and FHR – a partnership that has literally touched the lives of millions of our people.

In 1996 a partnership between EU and Government of the Republic of South Africa established the “European Union Foundation for Human Rights” to implement the joint programme on Human Rights.  The agreement underscored the commitment of both the South African government and the EU to the promotion and protection of human rights and democratic principles.

The previous programme, the Access to Justice and Promotion of Human Rights Programme was funded by the EU through Budget Support to an amount of 25 million Euros and funded more than 600 projects, targeting vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Among its achievements, the programme succeeded in reaching an audience of nine-million persons through the popular education programmes on constitutional rights; raising awareness of rights amongst 360 000 farm workers and farm dwellers and increasing their access to justice; supporting the diversion of 10 000 persons from prison and ensuring that 5400 CSO members benefited from capacity building programmes.

The programme has also supported more than 100 community based Advice Offices (CAOs); ensured that more than 100 000 migrants were provided with legal support services and more than 1300 civil society organizations were able to engage in formal policy dialogues with the state.

Under the programme more than 200 workshops were held with the human rights sector which include migration, hate crimes, combating racism and Xenophobia, gender based violence, disability and discrimination and exclusion.

The Socio Economic Justice for All (SEJA) Programme, which is the current program, is also supported by the EU through a Sector Budget Support modality. 

Its main focus is on constitutional rights awareness with emphasis on socio-economic rights, supporting Outcome 14 (Social Cohesion) of the Medium Term Strategic Framework and the NDP. Key indicators are included in DOJ&CD’s Annual Performance Plan and the duration of programme is from 2014/2018 with a close-out in 2019.

As we are nearing the end of the SEJA programme, we have to find innovative ways to continue the valuable work being done.

And there still is much to be done.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want to conclude, in the spirit of the Human Rights Festival and since we are here in the Women’s Jail, with a poem from another anti-apartheid activist and Robben Island poet, Dennis Brutus, called “Today in Prison” –

“Today in prison
by tacit agreement
they will sing just one song:
Nkosi Sikelela;
slowly and solemnly,
with suppressed passion
and pent up feeling:
the voices strong and steady
but with tears close and sharp
behind the eyes
and the mind ranging
wildly as a strayed bird
seeking some names to settle on
and deeds being done

and those who will do the much
that still needs to be done.”

Let us, here, be among those who will do the much that still needs to be done.

I thank you.