Human Rights in South Africa: Are we just being hypocritical?

by Rampe Hlobo SJ

One of the recurring and ugly characteristics of our post-apartheid South Africa has been the perennial human rights violations of migrants and refugees. As far back as 1998 we heard about the horrific xenophobic experiences of foreign nationals. One prominent example was of three men from Senegal and Mozambique who were thrown out of a moving train by a group of South Africans in Johannesburg. Almost ten years later, in May 2008, South Africans embarked on the ugliest and most horrendous xenophobic attacks – the worst of their kind, since the dawn of post-apartheid South Africa. Over sixty migrants and refugees were killed and thousands more were forcibly displaced.

It is now almost twenty years since those three men were thrown out of the train. Yet the violations of the rights of migrants and refugees have not stopped. If the past decade is anything to go by, these violations, instead of disappearing, have become entrenched, more widespread and seemingly acceptable. The persecution of foreigners is even encouraged in some quarters of South African society.

This behaviour on its own is deplorable, despicable and disquieting. However what is more perturbing is the fact that those who commit these atrocities are unequivocally transmitting a very negative message: human rights do not apply to migrants and refugees in South Africa. This message has been intentionally or unintentionally supported by the the refusal of the authorities and prominent figures to label these attacks as xenophobic. It is a disturbing observable fact that has fostered an attitude among South Africans of denying migrants and refugees their human rights. Consequently one is left with no option but to question the people of South Africa’s commitment to their constitution, particularly chapter two of the constitution.

But even more disconcerting than the attacks on migrants and refugees, and the violation of their right to be in South Africa, is the denial of their fundamental right to life. Over the years many migrants and refugees have been killed simply because they were foreigners in South Africa.

In a society that faces many complex problems, it is understandable that people are frustrated by their socio-economic conditions. It is however unacceptable for migrants and refugees’ rights to be violated, especially their right to life, simply because the perpetrators find themselves in difficult socio-economic conditions.

As South Africans celebrate human rights today there is a need to point out and highlight the fact that we cannot, as a country, celebrate this day with a clear conscience. Some among us have become perpetrators and violators of the fundamental human rights of other human beings. Refugees and migrants in our midst continue to be subjected to lives of insecurity and fear simply because they are foreigners. Many South Africans just watch and do nothing while these violations of human rights continue and, sadly, flourish.

This behavior, I would argue, brings into question our moral right to celebrate Human Rights Day. With so many foreigners who are forcibly displaced and who suffer atrocious violations of their fundamental human rights in South Africa, are we not just being hypocritical?

Not so long ago we South Africans were the ones crying out for help and solidarity when our basic human rights were being violated by the oppressive apartheid government. In fact, the day we celebrate as Human Rights Day in South Africa is a commemoration of the 69 protestors who were massacred in Sharpeville, a township outside Vereeniging. They were killed for protesting against the carrying of identity documents, according to what was known as the “pass law”. It is ironic that today migrants and refugees are forced to carry their identity documents and permits, and are subjected to random checks of their documents by corrupt law enforcers.

The same practice that was once inflicted on South Africans is now deemed to be acceptable by the same people who decried it a few decades ago. Authorities who were once opposed to the law that forced them to carry their identity documents during the apartheid era, are now compelling migrants and refugees to do the very same thing.   The situation reminds us of the words of Pope John XXIII: “Sometimes in states of this kind the very right to freedom is called into question, and even flatly denied.”

John XXIII’s assertion is extremely pertinent for migrants and refugees in South Africa. The challenge is partly because human rights are perceived as legalistic declarations. But they are, in fact, indispensable for every human being and so are not just legalistic declarations. They are intrinsically in harmony with the ethical and religious beliefs based on natural law – law “written” in the human heart – as argued by Popes John XXIII and Benedict XVI.

Unless we South Africans significantly change our attitudes towards migrants and refugees, and recognise and embrace the fact that they too have human dignity and rights, we should critically question our celebration and commemoration of Human Rights Day on March 21.

Fr Rampe Hlobo SJ

Fr. Rampe Hlobo SJ (born Soweto 1972; entered the Jesuits 1993; ordained 2008) is Delegate for Migrants and Refugees for the Society of Jesus in South Africa.
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