Time for reflection

On March 21 1960 about 7000 people gathered at Sharpeville police station in the Vaal to protest against the hated pass laws.

On March 21 1960 about 7000 people gathered at Sharpeville police station in the Vaal to protest against the hated pass laws.

In terms of that law, any black person found in public without a pass book was liable to be arrested and held in detention for up to 30 days.

The protest was led by the eminent PAC leader, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. The aim was for all blacks to leave their pass books at home and present themselves at police stations for arrest.

This, said Sobukwe, would cause prisons to become overcrowded, labour to dry up and the economy to grind to a halt.

Three hours after it began the "peaceful" gathering turned into a bloodbath when apartheid police opened fire on the protesters. Sixty people were killed and 180 wounded.

Since then liberation organisations have commemorated March 21 as Sharpeville Day. With the advent of democracy in 1994, the day was renamed Human Rights Day. This was in celebration of the new South African Constitution, which contains a Bill of Rights.

By celebrating the day South Africans acknowledge the sacrifices made by the people of Sharpeville, whose spilt blood has nurtured the tree of liberation in the new democratic order.

The new Constitution should be seen as the shade of this tree of liberation in which citizens of all races are expected to coexist.

Human Rights Day gives South Africans an opportunity to assess to what extent we are really enjoying the benefits of the shade as one nation.

In terms of the Constitution, the government has the responsibility to create an environment in which all citizens enjoy the benefits of the shade as one nation.

Key instruments in this regard are the Human Rights Act, the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 (Paia), Promotion of Administrative Justice Act of 2000 (Paja) and Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 (Pepuda).

Section 32 of the Constitution stipulates that every citizen has the right of access "to any information held by the state" and "any information held by another person that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights".

Paja was enacted to give effect to these rights. It provides remedies for disputes about access. For example, if a citizen requests information that he thinks is important for him, or her to exercise a particular right and is denied access, he, or she can take the matter to court.

Paja provides recourse to citizens who feel that they are unfairly treated by the courts.

Pepuda is aimed at promoting equal enjoyment of all rights and freedom by every person, the promotion of equality and the promotion of values of nonracialism and nonsexism contained in section 1 of the Constitution.

The act prohibits racial discrimination and the denial of access to opportunities.

The Acts are a clear indication that the government has to a large extent met its mandate to create an environment where all citizens can enjoy the benefits of the shade. But to what extent have South Africans put their shoulders to the wheel to build a united nonracial South Africa?

Incidents such as the abuse of black workers at the University of Free State (UFS), the furore over the re-launch of the Forum of Black Journalists and the attack by a white youth on North West's Skielik residents are a litmus test in that regard.

The outrage with which the UFS incident was met could be seen as an indication of the willingness by most South Africans to work towards ensuring that our new nation does enjoy the shade.

But what these incidents have brought to the fore, is that outrage against racism is not enough. What is needed is a commitment that involves, among other things, an atonement by citizens of all races. Such an atonement should include a willingness and ability to acknowledge the impact that our racist past has had on South Africans of all races and classes.

Such an event will go a long way to confronting some of the superficial ways in which certain South Africans want to deal with the psychological, social and socio-economic impact that racism has had on South Africans of different races and classes. It will also help us tackle the issue of continued racism in a manner that is sustainable.

The reality that we must face is that achieving nonracialism is not just about living cheek by jowl with each other. It entails a massive change in our psycho-social and material existence. We must acknowledge that change is pain and given its magnitude in this instance, the pain will be even more intense.

Are we willing to face that pain or are we slipping into our comfort zone and resorting to band-aid solutions that will do nothing to improve the lives of millions of South Africans who continue to bear the brunt of racism?

These are the questions we should ask ourselves as we celebrate Human Rights Day tomorrow.