Know your rights, says new government programme

Service delivery, education, housing and health are to be the key areas of a new programme launched by the department of justice and constitutional development and the Foundation for Human Rights, with funding from the European Union.

A lack of service delivery and housing, in particular, has led to violent confrontations between the police and communities angry at their lack of toilets, running water and housing.

The Amarightza programme aims to educate not only the public but also government officials about the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the importance of delivery in this area. It wants to educate the public about where to go if they have a complaint.

Socioeconomic rights have been largely neglected in favour of civil and political rights, Foundation for Human Rights executive director Yasmin Sooka said at the launch of the programme at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Wednesday. 

It was Sooka’s view, as well as that of former United Nations High Commissioner Judge Navi Pillay and a number of other dignitaries who attended the function, that the growing inequalities in South African society need to be addressed urgently. 

Assessable justice
“The justice ministry believes, just as we do, that it’s important to make justice assessable to this country,” Sooka told the Mail & Guardian. 

“As Judge Jody Kollapen [of the Pretoria high court] once said: ‘You cannot eat the Constitution’. People cannot fight for rights if they are hungry and these rights mean nothing if they are not being implemented,” she said. 

“The public need to know where they go to get assistance and government officials need to know what their responsibility is supplying assistance to the public in this regard.”

Sooka said workshops would be held across the nine provinces and the roll-out was already beginning. A baseline study, last conducted in 2011, would be undertaken as part of the programme to provide the foundation and justice department with insight into the level of public awareness about citizens’ rights. 

“The last study gave some insight into why people did not complain about conditions. They did not believe anything would be done,” she said. “It’s important to restore trust in these government departments.”

Deputy justice minister John Jeffery said the new programme provides support to the constitutional development branch of the department to “fulfil its mandate, with particular focus on building sector co-ordination in the social justice and human rights sector”. 

He said another key function was to support the “National Action Plan to combat racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia and other related intolerances”.

‘Participatory democracy’
The programme is intended to “enhance participatory democracy through public policy dialogues on constitutional rights,” he said. 

Jeffery said he did not believe South Africa could fulfil its civil and political rights without socioeconomic rights. “Similarly, we cannot build a free and democratic society based on equality and dignity while we still experience racism and racially abusive behaviour.

“Access to justice, in the narrow sense, means assisting people to take matters to court and to access the justice system. But perhaps there is also a wider definition of access to justice, which includes social justice, and creating a society where there is no injustice, racial superiority, no stereotyping and no prejudice.” 

He expressed disappointment at singer Steve Hofmeyr’s attempt to apply for an interim order to gag comedian and ventriloquist Conrad Koch, and the resulting “comments on social media by the right wing”, which smacked of racism. 

Jeffery said it was important to emphasise that the attainment of socioeconomic rights was something government sought for all. “We do not ask if someone is white, black, coloured or Indian before we provide healthcare, water and sanitation or education to them.”

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