Less than 24 hours before the annual observance of the commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre, which occurred on the 21st of March in 1960 when police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting against the apartheid pass laws, hundreds of South Africans responded to the call by EFF party leader, Julius Malema, to take to the streets in protest against load-shedding and to demand President Cyril Ramaphosa’s resignation. The party had asked that the protest action on 20 March, termed the National Shutdown, “be militant and radical, yet peaceful, to register the legitimate demands that affect our collective existence as a people”. By Ramadimetja Makgeru
While peaceful protests are a constitutional right in South Africa, the likelihood of the National Shutdown being peaceful may be a pipe dream due to the many violent protests in the past. A clear example is the wave of protests following former President Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court in 2021. The protests quickly turned violent, resulting in widespread looting, destruction of property, and loss of life. Although a memory we would rather forget, the events exposed the fault lines in the country’s social fabric. They emphasised the importance of addressing the systemic and structural factors contributing to human rights violations.
While we reflect on the past and our progress on the 21st of March, we must not forget that marginalised communities continue to face systemic and structural challenges that violate their human rights. To celebrate the effort many young people put in to fight this violation, this article will explore the profiles of young people who continue working tirelessly to address these challenges and bring about change.
The systemic and structural factors contributing to human rights violations are often deeply ingrained in society and require a sustained effort to address. As members of the Activate Network, we are already aware of the importance of leadership development and community empowerment. Still, it’s essential to recognise that human rights violations occur in a broader context beyond individual behaviour or cultural practices.
One of the most significant challenges to promoting human rights is discrimination, inequality, and poverty. These issues disproportionately affect marginalised groups and create conditions of vulnerability that enable human rights violations. For example, research has shown that women and girls are more likely to experience violence and discrimination. At the same time, people living in poverty are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The youth of South Africa are no strangers to the fight for human rights. Take, for example, 16-year-old Zulaikha Patel, who, in 2016, led a protest against her school’s discriminatory hair policy. Zulaikha’s protest sparked a nationwide conversation about institutionalised racism in schools. It inspired other young people to speak out against unfair policies. Her activism earned her the title of “The Lioness of Africa” and is a powerful example of how young people can be agents of change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep inequalities that still exist in our country. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how systemic and structural factors can exacerbate existing inequalities and increase human rights violations. As the United Nations noted in 2021, the pandemic has increased violence against women, children, and vulnerable groups, such as refugees and migrants. It has also created economic and social instability, increasing human trafficking and forced labour. However, the struggle for human rights in South Africa goes beyond institutionalised discrimination. In 2020, 23-year-old Sinoxolo Mafevuka, a young mother living in Khayelitsha, died after being denied access to a COVID-19 testing centre because she did not have a South African ID. Her death highlights the barriers marginalised communities face in accessing healthcare and their right to life, especially during a pandemic.
To address these challenges, it’s crucial to take a systemic and structural approach. This means examining the social, economic, and political contexts that create conditions of vulnerability and discrimination for marginalised groups. It also involves identifying strategies and tactics to promote human rights and hold those violating them accountable. Many young people in South Africa live in poverty, a significant barrier to realising their human rights. 21-year-old Nontobeko Mthembu, a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, had to drop out of school due to financial difficulties. She had to choose between paying for tuition or feeding her family, and she chose the latter. Her story illustrates poverty’s impact on young people’s ability to access education, a fundamental human right.
Examples of individuals and organisations who have taken a stand against human rights violations can provide inspiration and hope. For instance, activists like Bulelani Qolani, who was dragged naked from his shack during a forced eviction, have drawn attention to the urgent need to address housing inequalities in South Africa. Similarly, organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign have been instrumental in advocating for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and challenging the South African government’s response to the epidemic. Despite these challenges, young people in South Africa continue to fight for their rights. In 2020, the #AmINext campaign gained international attention after several gender-based violence incidents, including the brutal murder of 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana. Thousands of young people took to the streets to demand action from the government to protect women and girls from violence. The campaign highlighted the urgent need for systemic and structural changes to address gender-based violence in South Africa.
For human rights day in 2023, we celebrated the many inspiring stories of young people who have worked tirelessly to promote and protect human rights in their communities. These stories remind us that change is possible and begins with individuals willing to act. But as we look to the future, we must also acknowledge the many challenges. We must continue to advocate for systemic and structural change to address the root causes of human rights violations and work together to create a just and equitable society. Let us also remember that our work still needs to be done, and may we continue to strive towards a better future for all.
What human rights challenge are you passionate about, and how can we work together to address it? Let’s keep the conversation going.
Bio: Ramadimetja is an Activate Change Drivers network member with a passion for community engagement and development. She is a freelance writer with a specific interest in current affairs, mental health, wellness and education. She uses her writing as a form of advocacy to educate others and bring attention to matters in these subject areas.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.