South Africa sets aside a national public holiday every year specially to mark human rights. It commemorates the tragedy of Sharpeville where, on 21 March 1960, police opened fire on peaceful protesters, leaving at least 69 people dead and 180 injured. The hated “pass laws” against which they were protesting forced every black person in SA to carry documents indicating the area where they were allowed to work or live. If you were found outside this area, you would be arrested and charged.
Each year since the first democratic government was elected in 1994, the holiday has been an occasion to mark an aspect of the new constitution and its progressive bill of rights. This year, however, the holiday finds most of the country in darkness, thanks to a new kind of power struggle. Because of continuing, massive-scale corruption and looking of state resources by politicians, civil servants and others, many crucial elements of the state are fighting for their survival, including the state electricity provider which has been brought to its knees and threatens to collapse completely. With many hours of rolling blackouts right across SA every day, no-one’s life has been unaffected.
It is a frustrating, sobering experience, giving new force to the argument that those involved in bribery and corruption infringe the human rights of everyone else. And at the same time it inevitably focuses attention on those too poor to afford electricity or other forms of power and whose human rights are also thus infringed.
Meanwhile, SA’s neighbour, Namibia, also marks this date in a special way: as Namibian Independence Day, the day in 1990 when independence from SA became official.
One of the reasons for everyone in the region to be grateful to Namibia is that it hosted the crucial SADC Tribunal, a body intended to help guard human rights in the region, from its inauguration in 2005 until its untimely death in 2012 at the hands of the then-Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, and his allies in SADC. Given the important role it played, we hope the tribunal will soon be re-established and operating out of Windhoek as before.
While we wait – for electricity and for the Tribunal to come back online – best wishes to Namibians and South Africans on this special day.
- Editorial, Newsletter, Judicial Institute for Africa (Jifa), 21 March 2019