South Africa has come a long way since 1994 as far as civil liberties are concerned.
Our Constitution is hailed as the most progressive in the world, and it recognises the importance of redressing past injustices as a result of apartheid. Indeed, the government has done remarkable work in ensuring that the rights of citizens are protected through the law and legal instruments and mechanisms by various chapter nine institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission, the Commission for Gender Equality and the public protector, to name just a few.
Although this progress is laudable, many citizens still struggle to access basic services.
Stated differently, although individual rights abound, structural inequalities continue unabated. In theory, socioeconomic rights are available to all citizens; in practice, only a few enjoy them.
This phenomenon has shaped the human rights discourse in South Africa, where access to these rights and the exercising of those rights are strongly inflected by race and class. These two elements of societal structure continue to lend weight on who accesses these rights. It is a travesty of justice in a post-apartheid era.
Socioeconomic rights are basic rights that every citizen should enjoy, irrespective of their race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, to mention a few. As a country that advocates for human rights, it is concerning that most citizens, especially the poor, live on the margins of society.
Despite the poor economic conditions, resulting in widening inequality and unemployment, there seems to be little impetus towards cushioning citizens from economic and other shocks that make accessing socioeconomic rights an impossible feat for many ordinary people.
Moreover, the country’s macroeconomic policies still tilt in favour of the affluent. One of the key questions that citizens should be grappling with is: Is the failure of economic policy a violation of human rights? In most instances, a failure of economic policy is perceived as a failure of the state, rather than a violation of human rights, because at the heart of a policy failure is a human being — a citizen who cannot afford basic services such as housing and water.
When water is commodified so that those who cannot afford to pay for it are punished, it is a travesty of justice. Water is a shared common resource and should be viewed as such so that every citizen can enjoy it.
In the same vein, housing should be made accessible to all. There is plenty of state-owned land in many local municipalities and it should be made available to meet this need.
Given the scale of these challenges, there should be concerted efforts from government to ameliorate the effects of being unable to access socioeconomic rights.
First, combat corruption in all its forms. Revelations from the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture and other commissions are concerning and shed some light on why providing basic services to citizens is still an uphill task for the government. There has to be a way of holding those mentioned in these commissions accountable for their actions as well as recovering the monies stolen from the public purse so that citizens can receive public services as provided for in the Constitution.
Second, the state must actively implement court orders to remedy the circumstances that bar access to rights for citizens. Any disregard of court orders is dangerous as it undermines our democracy and the role of the judiciary. The courts, given their broad constitutional powers, should be more innovative in developing their orders so that they can be properly implemented and enforced.
Third, civil society should continue advocating for better provision of public services to all citizens. The state’s failure to deliver adequately cannot be left unchallenged. A vibrant civil society that can hold the state accountable is critical for ensuring its officials are made to answer for their actions as far as maladministration of public funds is concerned. At the same time, the sector must be vigilant to ensure citizens’ aspirations are not only captured in the national and regional development plans, but are also acted upon and resources allocated to actualise them. And where such resources are misappropriated or under-spent, someone should be held responsible.
Furthermore, continued advocacy pressure by human rights activists on the structural power configuration in society is critical in ensuring political rhetoric does not provide room for the elite to continue enjoying public services at the expense of citizens.
Beyond the reality of unemployment, inequality and poverty, it is important to accelerate the pace at which basic services are provided to the most vulnerable in society. It is our collective responsibility as citizens to ensure that our hard-won democracy does not lose its legitimacy if only a section of the populace enjoys its fruits. As citizens we must not remain silent, neither should civil society be complacently “watching this space”. This is a clarion call — let’s unite against all forms of injustices that limit enjoyment of human rights in South Africa.
Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his own views.