The country had to work to overcome several problems, including the Protection of State Information Bill, poverty and inequality, and gender-based violence.
Former Irish president and current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Robinson was delivering the 10th annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Cape Town on Sunday. "My challenge today is to speak to you, South Africans, as your friend," she said. "A true friend tells you not only what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear."
Robinson said she was speaking on the 50th anniversary of former president Mandela's arrest and the centenary of the ANC's founding. "Anniversaries are a good time to take stock," she said.
Accountability and transparency were required for citizens to remain stewards of democracy. So, it was with great concern that she had followed the progress of South Africa's protection of state information legislation.
A law that cloaked the workings of state actors and interfered with the exposure and investigation of corruption would be certain to increase levels of corruption. "The public interest demands that basic truth, of having both transparency and accountability in government," she said. "Secrecy is the enemy of truth in this regard."
South Africa's national plan of action for human rights, launched in 1997, stated that democracy was irreconcilable with racial inequality, social injustice, poverty, crime, violence, and disregard for human rights.
She said she was shocked by the disparity of wealth in South Africa. "Where you witness extremes of wealth side by side with dire poverty within the same country, it is more divisive than an overall condition of poverty," she said.
Levels of crime and violence in some areas, such as Lavender Hill or Khayelitsha, meant that people were living in unmanageably traumatic situations. South Africa was a young democracy, but its citizens had to ask some uncomfortable questions about the underperformance of the education system, high illiteracy, and disparity in resource allocation.
"You have both the positive resource and the acute problem of a young population with high unemployment and a deficit of skills," she said. Young people needed support and resources to complete their education and learn skills before accessing a job market where jobs could be found.
Citizenship and common purpose were the essential bedrock to realising freedom, truth and democracy. In South Africa, as in many countries, there was a lack of trust in traditional institutions of democracy, such as the ability of Parliament and local authorities to tackle corruption and inequality.
However, technology could empower ordinary people and introduce new ways of holding the government accountable. Ushahidi software had come about in response to a call to repurpose Google Maps for Kenya to identify where violence was occurring, and its extent. It had since been repurposed to map diseases and many other types of crisis mapping. One local authority in Ireland was using it to map potholes. "The potential of this technology to map, and provide data, on incidents of corruption, on non-attendance of teachers at schools, and so on, could make these problems much more visible and increase the possibility of accountability," she said.
South African women were well represented in government, with 41% of Cabinet positions, five out of nine provincial premiers, and 42% of Parliamentary seats. But twice as many women as men had HIV and over 66 000 cases of sexual offences, some against young children, were reported from 2010 to 2011.
A 2009 study by the African Development Bank found that South Africa had focused on representative equality at the expense of policies which would change the lives of the majority of women. "This is clearly a challenge which women leaders in South Africa must take up — not just political leaders, but women in business, in law, in the unions, and in leadership at local level," she said.
Men, too, had to see this as a priority. Sustainable development could not be achieved with zero tolerance of gender-based violence and a full commitment to gender equality.
South Africa had a great opportunity to draw on its strengths, renew its vision, and continue to build its nation. "I have every confidence in South Africa realising the opportunities for its humanity to fully emerge," she said. – Sapa