SETHULEGO MATEBESI | Collective activism strengthens our agency, resolve to respect human rights

South African human rights commission logo
South African human rights commission logo
Image: Facebook

There was a time when weekly news coverage of SA was dominated by various forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance incidents that painted a grim picture of respect for human rights.

However, in the history of contemporary SA there has been plenty of optimism about the prospect of deepening the understanding of human rights in order to entrench a human rights culture among citizens.

This optimism is underscored by a range of deliberate actions by the government to promote, protect, and monitor the development and observance of human rights through, for example, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality.

Yet, while these institutions – and many other policy instruments to ensure compliance – are central to creating an environment conducive to advancing rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, citizens also hold significant responsibility to prevent the escalation of discrimination and racial tension. But many of us face an uncomfortable truth we have become accustomed to avoiding: the ability to show unusual restraint in the face of injustice.

Beyond formal political rights, human rights also entail the progressive realisation of the right to the structural social determinants of well-being, such as access to clean water, food, and a healthy environment. However, while the process of social change in SA has many unique attributes, the response to the process reflects two extremes.

There are, on the one hand, those who cultivate an image as defenders of the rights of the "oppressed" and are predominantly black activists, and on the other hand, anti-transformation forces who stall the move of the country towards a more inclusive and egalitarian future and are primarily white activists. These activists, whether advancing the reclamation of rights, perpetuate legacies of the past instead of asserting a positive commitment to eradicating socially constructed barriers to equality.

These activists are found everywhere. They are part of our education, religious, political and social establishments. Reflecting on the painful past of the country, these activists do not help foster diversity as an ethos but advance the conscious and unconscious practices of structural racism. Aided by hyper-personalised social media feeds, these activists can stretch the boundaries of logic and destabilise fragile and established democratic and human rights.

The problem, they claim, is that those who embrace diversity and want to find amicable solutions to longstanding social injustices are either advocates of white supremacy or want to abrogate their right to freedom of expression. In such cases, when people in a hate frenzy find something to hate together, they become bonded. And anything contrary to their beliefs goes into an echo chamber of mockery.

I do not want to establish a potentially trivialising affinity with branding activists who assert their rights as an attack on human rights. But attention is drawn to instances where noble objectives to confront the tentacles of human rights abuses have been weaponised against what is perceived as "the other".

But how can we navigate this fundamental societal defect?

After three decades of democracy, attempts to eliminate systematic and institutionalised under-privilege must be welcomed. Likewise, our response to the perceived threats to efforts to enhance diversity as an ethos in public institutions and society matters. In many instances, when subjugated to hatred, hostility, or even violence, there is a tendency to believe that the best approach to such an absurd situation is more absurdity. At its most benign, such a response is not helpful to efforts to embrace diversity. At its weirdest, it garners public sympathy for hate groups and activists.

While there have been concerted efforts internationally and nationally for the progressive realisation of social rights and efforts to strengthen democratic resilience and rights-respecting societies, South Africans have been passing the buck. Rights-respecting citizens have a choice to make. They can continue to pass the buck or help build a culture where everyone achieves their potential and develops into responsible citizens.

I am convinced that beyond formal politics, the attainment of respect for cultural diversity and professing the freedom, equality and unity of all peoples are contingent upon our collective activism and shared commitments to these values. This collective approach – although some may view it as illusory – is, in fact, our most potent weapon. Reinforcing its commitment strengthens our collective agency and resolve to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.


  • Prof Matebesi is an associate professor and academic head of department of sociology at the University of the Free State

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