Human dignity fundamental to realising human rights

Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa at the unveiling of the SA constitution. The writer asks why injustices remain despite such a progressive constitution.

Why is it that, although we live in a world that is arguably the most democratic it’s ever been, the concept of human rights still doesn’t work the way it should? That even though there is a set of substantive rights setting the standard for universal human rights, many people continue to live lives that are void of dignity and where their inalienable rights as being part of the human family are denied them.

South Africa made history when it became the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage and has a Constitution that is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. It is also a country where there are still schools with inadequate sanitation where young children have fallen into pit toilets and died and where corrective rape is a real threat for many Black lesbian women. And although we live in a time where feigning ignorance is becoming more difficult, with social media feeds punctuated with posts about social justice, accounts of human trafficking, child labour and violent racism continue to mushroom. The horror of Life Esidimeni, the Drie Hoek farm’s exploitation of seasonal workers and children, and the Ngcobo church leaders who kept over 100 women and children as alleged sex slaves are recent incidents that are testimony to what a complete disregard for human life looks like.

It seems almost unimaginable that in an age where human rights discourse is so pervasive, there is so much injustice globally. But it is the very pervasiveness of human rights discourse and the commonly understood universality of a human rights standard, which allow deep societal inequalities of resources and power imbalances to remain veiled. The collective alarm around recent global events should spur us on to reflect on the ways in which rights can be used not only as legal instruments but as moral and ethical tools to inform development work, to shape political culture, to stimulate the growth of social movements and, most importantly, to guide us in how we relate to one another.

Ultimately human rights should, in a country as unequal as South Africa, be about the regulation of power and fundamentally about the safeguarding of the most marginalised and most vulnerable persons in our societies. It should be about protecting our most public and private spaces from oppression, shining a light on societal practices and governmental processes that weaken social justice efforts and should urgently challenge ways of thinking that underscore and reinforce human suffering.  

It is unacceptable that in many cases the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or even our own Bill of Rights have been reduced to a set of protections that merely alleviates the most abject destitution. And even then, thousands of people in this country and all over the world continue to live in the most undignified conditions.

The global human rights model has many inherent limitations and as such there is a need for more deliberate collective reflection on how to more effectively develop and implement rights frameworks and tools that challenge and ultimately subvert the various forms of hegemonic power.

For human rights to make any difference in addressing deep patterns of inequality that characterises the South African landscape, and for human rights to be more than just a weak doppelgänger of neoliberalism, the concept of human dignity should be inextricably linked and fundamental to how we understand human rights. Our country bears the scars of centuries of dehumanisation and total disregard for human life and this needs to be acknowledged if we are to create a new human rights movement that can curb experiences of inequality.  

Treating everyone with dignity and with respect is the most immediate way in which we can celebrate our humanness. This simple approach can in small ways start to expose and disrupt harmful discourses that shape our collective understanding about our role and place in society and in relation to others.  


Eleanor Du Plooy is the Senior Project Leader for the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.