Being able to take decisions that affect one’s standard of living – where you go to school, where you live, with whom you live, who you form relationships with, where you work and what work you do – is an unknown concept for many persons with disabilities in South Africa. This is mostly due to the fact that public environments, such as schools and workplaces have not transformed and continue to pursue exclusionary policies and practises, robbing many persons with disabilities of their freedom and equality.
In July 2018, the British and Kenyan governments convened the Global Disability Summit, in London. The Summit mobilised new global and national commitments and showcased good practice, innovation and evidence from around the world. One of the areas that was an eye opener was the speech given by Lenin Moreno, President of Ecuador, who is a wheelchair user. He recalled how since he became vice-president of Ecuador in 2007, he led on a sweeping series of policies that aimed to transform life for people with disabilities in Ecuador. President Moreno explained that his Government is currently promoting a plan that protects the rights of all people from conception to the end of life. Also present at the Summit was Gabriela Michetti, vice president of Argentina, who is also a wheelchair user.
In both the speeches it was clear how important it is for persons with disabilities to be the ones that fight for more inclusive societies, and the potential there is in reducing stigma towards persons with disabilities to the extent that it enables us to hold the highest and most influential positions in the country, and ensuring that people with disabilities have the same freedoms as others.
The South African government recently appeared before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, where it reported on the progress made in implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Among some of the areas for improvement identified by the Committee was the low levels of inclusion, participation, and involvement of persons with disabilities in policy and legislative making processes.
For far too long, people with disabilities been excluded in the economic, social, policy and legislative direction of the country, and it is for this reason that many institutions in the country are not considerate of the rights and needs of people with disabilities as a bigger group. For example, in the Equity Survey conducted by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), it was found that prior to the publication on the white paper on the rights of persons with disabilities, only 1 in 5 municipalities (15 of 76 or 20%) had disability policies. Meaning that the majority of municipalities had little or no guidance on how to respect and observe their rights within the municipal context, nor did they have self determined targets for the inclusion of persons with disabilities.
The role that people with disabilities can play as leaders in the country cannot be underestimated. It is no coincidence that the white paper on the rights of persons with disabilities came through the Department of Social Development which happens to be one of the 2 ministries that have a person with a disability in a cabinet position. It is therefore quite clear that an increased presence of persons with disabilities in parliamentary and senior government positions could definitely contribute to greater respect and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities and much better opportunities for persons with disabilities to represent themselves on critical issues in the country.
In line with this, as a sector, we have to begin to believe that a person with a disability can hold the highest office in the country as has been done in the past in countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ecuador, and Peru. The sector must also begin to work towards ensuring that the pool of people with disabilities with the expertise to lead is expanded. In order to achieve this it is vital that the South Africa adopts a culture that is inclusive of persons with disabilities in all spheres in order to enable persons with disabilities to make choices of their own. As discussed above, the development of viable current and future leaders in vital to ensuring this. In order to increase the chances of such an occurrence it is vital that South Africa focus on inclusivity in terms of education, the work environment, and the political environment.
Stigma against those with disabilities standing for election remains a major social barrier. Restrictions on political rights such as the right to vote and to be elected are, however, often even more restricted than many other domains, since political rights are often compromised or overlooked. Voter education needs to happen on an ongoing basis and Reasonable Accommodation (RA) should be a priority. RA means, inter alia, documents in Braille or large print, information in audio, sign language interpretation, introduction of Electronic Voting Machines. Secondly, venue accessibility, including the need for ramps, assistance, and ballot papers themselves in large print or Braille.
It is however clear that people with disabilities are politically active citizens. The HSRC and IEC Voter Participation Survey showed that Persons with disabilities had a marginally higher “intention to vote” (81%) than those without disabilities (79%).
In 2019, General elections will be held in South Africa to elect a new National Assembly and new provincial legislatures in each province. This will be the sixth election held since the end of the apartheid system in 1994. Section 19 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa guarantees the right of all citizens to make political choices, to form political parties, participate in the activities of political parties, to vote in elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution, and to do so in secret, and to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office. In terms of Section 47(1) of the Constitution “Every citizen who is qualified to vote for the National Assembly is eligible to be a member of the Assembly.
As active citizens, people with disabilities must exercise their political rights with foresight of the implication for the rights of persons with disabilities, and consider the need for more persons with disabilities to be represented in our senior government positions,and for more opportunities to be presented to persons with disabilities to represent themselves and speak for themselves in South Africa.
Adv Bokankatla Joseph Malatji currently serves as a Commissioner for the SAHRC.