1994 marked the official political and economic rebirth of South Africa, following the dissolution of the apartheid system of governance. The new democratic dispensation heralded the beginning of an era in which political, social and economic emancipation would depend on a democratic model where non-white South Africans re-claim their denied humanity within a context of human rights. On the other hand, white South Africans would participate in this emancipation through their realization of how, at the expense of the non-white majority, they had acquired the great economic advantages carried over into this new dispensation.

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Nelson Mandela casting his vote in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Intrinsically, right from 1994, the doctrine of rights was initiated upon a host of political and economic tensions artificially absolved by a trust largely endorsed by a State that promised to protect every individual in view of their rights and privileges within the new South Africa. This is an important distinction because the State acted as a veil between the competing groups, and a line of tension upon which the calls from the various groups would be received by the State and re-transmitted in a reconciliatory tone to the “other” side of the tension. Nelson Mandela, being the face of that tension, demonstrated sufficient composure that allowed the “warring” sides to trust each other through the “Mandela” filter. The rainbow nation had thus been successfully installed in this way.
The African National Congress (ANC) with a demonstrably deeper and more thought-out political and social ideology ensured the implementation of human rights into South African law. It must be borne in mind that throughout the struggle against Apartheid, the ANC had insisted upon the recognition that all people should be equal under law, and that there was no basis for preferential treatment of some groups over and above others. As such, come 1994, the discourse of rights had meant that the State could only enforce all human rights for all groups, and so somewhat find itself protecting even those rights that would later be dimmed as impeding the path towards true social and economic emancipation for the majority non-whites.
Of course with the passage of time, as has been the case in several other African countries, the usual cogs in the wheels of developmental state-ism begun to surface. The politics of patronage and large scale corruption begun to bedevil the establishment as those close to the centres of political power acquired obscene amounts of wealth almost overnight. The State as an honest broker between the warring sides rapidly began to lose credibility, and the various sides started to lose trust in the credibility of the State as a mitigating entity amongst numerous stakeholders.

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A ‘Bill of Rights’ outside an old prison in Durban, South Africa. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons.

The non-white majority began to sense that rights were simply an endorsement that did not translate into meaningful change beyond the rights to say speak or protest. Rights in this context, and as one would draw from the informative and extensive writings of Mahmood Mamdani, became nothing more than sets of protections that barred previously underprivileged groups from deeply engaging the structural arrangements of the South African economy that would lead to fuller integration and emancipation for non-whites. In essence, the state of human rights in South Africa is firmly a contention over economic arrangements.
Moving forward, the founding functional pillars upon which human rights were implemented have to be salvaged. The state has to be decisively freed from its now apparent complacency within the perceived — and many of them real — injustices of South Africa’s economic arrangements. This means, the sustainability of human rights in South Africa has more to do with according the State a moral high-ground upon which the filter-role instituted by Mandela’s administration can be reaffirmed.
In the absence of which, rights as mere stipulations of law will continue to be seen as blockages against the very real challenges and advantages bestowed unfairly upon non-white and white groups of the population. The point is, as long as that perception persists, South Africa’s human rights record will continue to shine brightly on its policy documents and official papers while having little confidence and meaning for the people of South Africa today.
Permissively therefore, one may well conclude with three contentions that: i) – the economy is South Africa’s truest expression of the country’s actual status of human rights; ii) – the State as the goer-between of the various groups is also the filtering veil or arbitrating interface that keeps the various groups patient, while iii) – the emancipatory transformation remains facilitated within a context of robust human rights vis-à-vis the competing needs to see South Africans achieve meaningful and worthwhile economic and political emancipation.


Lukong Stella Shulika is an independent researcher, a contract lecturer with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and is pursuing a PhD in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies at the university.
Featured Photo From Wikimedia Commons


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