The Liberation archives and human rights in South Africa

Posted on June 25, 2013
It is true that 'apartheid was founded on, and represented an intensification of, the colonial system of subjugation of Africans, Coloureds and Indians, it grossly violated human rights in numerous ways, and on different levels. As time passed the system of human rights violation mutated into different forms, while retaining its essentially discriminatory and violent features' (ANC, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, August 1996). The ANC's statement discerns the extent to which the human rights of African, Coloureds and Indians were violated in apartheid South Africa.

The violation of human rights in South Africa demanded that the Liberation Movements become non-violent political entities when children we being killed in the hundreds. It actually compelled them to be active to denounce the violation of human rights by apartheid government. Hence the South African Liberation Movements, in particular the ANC, had to wage a fierce struggle against apartheid 'to ensure that our country and people are never again exposed to such systematic violation of human rights as occurred under apartheid…it is necessary that we construct a constitutional order which inherently protects human rights…' (ANC, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, August 1996).

The current 'constitutional order' was established by the ANC-led government: 'When Nelson Mandela signed the 1996 Constitution into law at Sharpeville on 10 December 1996, he brought to a close a long and bitter struggle to establish democracy in South Africa. The choice of Sharpeville, where apartheid police had opened fire on an armed crowd of pass-law protestors in March 1960, was both a symbolic gesture to the memories of the 69 people killed on that day and a statement of the country's determination to turn its back on a past marked by racism and the gross violation of human rights' (The Constitutional of the Republic of South Africa, 2012). I use these quotes to make sense of the spirit that entrenched a culture of respecting human rights as enshrined in the supreme law of the land.

Chapter two of the South African Constitution outlines the Bill of Rights, which is the cornerstone of our democracy. Section 7 is on rights and subsection 1 of Bill of Rights enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. Subsection 2 says 'the state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights' (The Constitutional of the Republic of South Africa, 2012). However, in 2013 it seems the 'constitutional order' that was signed into being at Sharpeville on 10 December 1996 is being nullified by South Africans.

My argument will be mainly guided by a specific set of rights outlined in the Bill of Rights pertaining to human dignity, life, freedom and security of person. I have chosen these rights because of their gross violation which is happening on a daily basis in South Africa. These rights are under threat.

Our country is fast becoming the opposite of what it purported to be with respect to the observation of human rights. Human rights are being stifled by organisations, law enforcement agencies, institutions of government as well as individuals. On a daily basis there is a visible lack of respect for human rights. The unprecedented violation of human rights is making a mockery of our hard-earned democracy and threatens to turn the country into a banana republic where everyone does as he/she pleases because there is no effective rule of law to curb a creeping culture that is based on 'I don't care' attitudes.

These human rights are at stake despite the long record and painful history of struggling and paying a supreme price for the same human rights we are collectively undermining today. People of South Africa tend to forget that the fundamental reason to stand up against apartheid was because apartheid was not just a system to oppress people. It was a crime against humanity and a crime that violated equality, human dignity, life, freedom and security of the person.

It is regrettable to learn that in the post-apartheid South Africa law enforcement agencies like the police are now stifling human rights like the apartheid police did in the past. The policemen and policewomen are fundamental to the safeguarding of human rights. They become the first point of reference whenever these rights are violated and are supposed to be a sanctuary for those whose rights are being violated. However in the past few months and years members of the South African Police Service have become the perpetrators of abuse.

Is that not an irony? How many people in this country have suffered at the hands of law enforcements agencies? How many citizens of this country have had their right to life taken away by the police?

In the townships, villages, farms and informal settlements of this country there is little respect for human rights. Our people have turned their communities into killing fields, places of agony and torment. The rights of children from age five are violated through sexual assault and rape; young women are raped and murdered daily and perpetrators are hardly ever arrested. In fact brother has turned against sister and the law of the jungle seems to have taken precedence, alienating the weak and vulnerable.

We now need to reflect on what it is that we are not doing right as well as what we are doing wrong as a nation. Why are the democratic gains being reversed and human rights being dismantled? One place we could turn to are the liberation archives, which have the evidence that the human rights that we celebrated on Human Rights Day, 21 March, were earned. The liberation archives put it clear that on this day in Kwa-Nobuhle and Sharpeville people died in the ruthless hands of apartheid forces. It is with this reason that as a nation we need to preserve our archives as they continue to be a constant reminder about specific national memories and experiences that we went through as a people.

Our people have to be referred to the historic records and knowledge as contained in the archives, in this case the liberation archives. When we remind ourselves of the past, our consciousness will be revived. I raise this to suggest that liberation archives are not just mere records to be studied but they can build a responsible citizenship in some of us and instill a sense of responsibility, care and pride.

The content of the liberation archives need to be made available to various communities of South Africa. If we do that our people will have access on knowledge that can make them better and caring citizens. Those individuals who care less about human rights today will realise the amnesia they are suffering from and the archives have responsibility to eradicate that amnesia.

The use of archives as a tool to educate the South African nation about our recent past cannot be left in the hands of academics and researchers only but spaces must be opened for the civil society to have access and participate in the dissemination of knowledge about archives and how they can be used to build a new culture of respecting human rights in South Africa.

Vuyani Booi is an Archival Platform correspondent based in the Eastern Cape