/ 18 March 2009

South Africans ‘still at war with each other’

Fifteen years into democracy, South Africans are still at war with each other, South African Human Rights Commission chairperson Jody Kollapen said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the annual human rights conference in Freedom Park, Pretoria, Kollapen said the country was moving further away from the visions of those who struggled for liberation.

”I do not believe we’re on track. You don’t advance a culture of human rights simply by adopting a progressive Constitution,” he said.

Kollapen said South Africans still saw race and language as giving or taking away another person’s value.

”We still see it as insurmountable and we all still feel comfortable in our little comfort zones. It’s having the courage to transcend that, that’s sometimes lacking.”

It is only once individuals start to look at each other in the eye and share and discuss their differences and develop humility that this could be overcome.

”Why as a country with so much promise, with an abundance of resources, it still struggles to give to its people a life, a humility and to give effect to the values of this Constitution.

”In society, 15 years old, it is quite evident to us, not withstanding the wonderful Constitution, in many instances we are a society at war with each other.”

This war also played itself out in violence against women, foreigners and homosexuals.

”We’re just South Africans sprouting out words of hatred towards each other. I think we’ve probably taken too seriously the fact that we’re this wonderful rainbow nation, a miracle nation, we’re not, we’re an ordinary country.”

Kollapen said the conference was a good opportunity to dialogue how society could move forward and get back on track.

Also addressing the gathering, which included representatives from the Black Management Forum, Afriforum and the Press Ombudsman, was Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron.

Cameron echoed Kollapen’s words that it was positive to feel uncomfortable.

He said seeing human rights as an abstract was worthless and it was only through defending these by coming out of one’s comfort zone and re-evaluating human rights that change could be made.

”We need to re-value ourselves and others as human beings.”

Using the Aids epidemic as an example, he said stigma, shame and denialism branded individuals.

Aids had become stigmatised because people did not talk about it and this was at the heart of recognising and defending human rights.

He said miscommunication about the disease was being peddled by charlatans and liars and while there was no cure to Aids, there was treatment.

Government, led by former president Thabo Mbeki, had embarked on a futile attempt to address the epidemic.

Cameron said he was not throwing stones but the past informed the future and it was important, as with discussions on human rights, to learn from ”catastrophic” periods.

”President Thabo Mbeki embarked on a tragic, futile and disastrous denial of Aids science. For four years our country’s Aids response was paralysed while he and his Cabinet resisted implementation of ordinary medical fact,” he said. — Sapa