Defending your Hard Won Rights

In a long and busy year, April is always a great month!  It’s got loads of public holidays, plenty of relaxation and one long weekend after another. Sometimes though we forget what all of the holidays are about.  On 27 April, we’ll all be celebrating Freedom Day.  And, yes, you guessed it!  This isn’t just about the freedom to relax, to have a braai, and to see friends and family.

Freedom Day commemorates South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and celebrates the new era of human rights, constitutional democracy and freedom that South Africans enjoy today.

Most of the new rights and freedoms that we’ll be celebrating are founded on the Bill of Rights contained in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights sets out important, fundamental rights that should be protected and promoted wherever possible.  But a right is a bit like a winning lottery ticket, it’s only useful if you know you have one, and you act on it!  So in this article, we’d like to tell you more about some of your fundamental human rights and how you can go about protecting them.

Know your Rights!

Knowledge is power, so let’s start with a brief description of some of the key human rights contained in the Constitution:

  • The right to Equality provides that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.  This means that you can’t be unfairly discriminated against on the grounds such as race, gender, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, culture, language and birth.In short, this right allows you to be yourself, whilst still being treated like everyone else!Remember though that the Constitution does allow for exceptions where good reasons exist or where it is necessary to right the wrongs of the past.  This is why affirmative action policies based on race are permitted.
  • The right to Privacy means that, unless good reasons exist, you or your home and property should not be searched, and your possessions should not be seized.  The privacy of your communications should also not be infringed.  Although this is a very powerful right, it isn’t absolute.  So, for example, if proper procedures are followed, your home may be searched in the course of a criminal investigation.
  • The right to Freedom of Religion, Belief and Opinion ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to practice their religion and beliefs.  This right is complemented by the right to Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, which ensures that everyone can enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language.
  • The right to Freedom of Expression includes freedom of the press; freedom of information and ideas; freedom of artistic creativity and academic freedom.  This right is restricted by a prohibition of propaganda for war, incitement to do violence and ‘hate speech’.
  • The right to Property prevents the random deprivation of property.  The government therefore can’t take your property away from you unless it is necessary for the public interest to do so, and only if you are paid reasonable compensation.
  • The socio-economic rights contained in the Bill of rights include the right to have access to Adequate Housing, the right to have access to Health Care, Food, Water and Social Security and the right to a Basic Education.  The constitution recognises that these ideals aren’t immediately achievable (for financial and logistical reasons) and it therefore grants the government time to achieve the realisation of these rights.  However, the government does have a constitutional obligation to take positive and progressive steps towards the delivery of these rights, within its available resources.
  • The sometimes controversial rights of Arrested, Detained and Accused Persons include the right to remain silent and to be presumed innocent; the right to legal representation; the right to be brought before a court, to be charged or to be informed of the reason for the arrest as soon as is reasonably possible; and the right to be granted bail if the interests of justice permit it.

Enforcing your rights

When it comes to enforcing your rights, you’re in luck because South Africa has one of the most developed civil society networks in the world.  There are literally hundreds of human rights NGO’s and government bodies out there and they are all working hard to ensure that our hard-won rights are properly protected.  Some of the more prominent institutions that can assist you are the following:

  • The South African Human Rights Commission is a national institution established under the Constitution to support constitutional democracy. It promotes respect for human rights and has broad powers to investigate and resolve complaints of human rights infringements.
  • Lawyers for Human Rights is an NGO that strives to promote, uphold and strengthen human rights;
  • The Legal Resources Centre is a human rights organization that uses the law to help vulnerable individuals and communities who suffer from race, gender or other forms of discrimination.
  • The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is a very active NGO providing professional socio-economic rights assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa.
  • The Legal Aid Board is a government institution that provides free legal representation to accused persons and to poor people who require assistance with civil litigation.
  • The Office of the Public Protector investigates complaints relating to the abuse of government power or resources.
  • The Independent Complaints Directorate is a government body that investigates complaints of misconduct by members of the police.
  • The Commission for Gender Equality is a government body that investigates complaints of gender discrimination.

Final thoughts on Freedom Day

Perhaps the most powerful message that Freedom Day gives us is that we want to be a society that honours and respects every individual’s dignity and human rights.  And maybe this is the key thought to ponder over the family braai on Freedom Day – because without mutual respect and a celebration of our differences, the task of achieving a true constitutional democracy will be so much harder.

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