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  • The Development of a Human Rights Culture in South Africa
  • Jeremy Sarkin (bio)

I. Introduction

A human rights culture could not develop in apartheid South Africa. 1 The system bred intolerance, a culture of violence, and lack of respect for life and, indeed, rights in general. After the fall of apartheid there was therefore an urgent need to help create and foster a human rights culture and to demonstrate the value of, and need for, human rights.

Four years after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa is a far better place, at least as far as human rights are concerned, than at any other time in its history. 2 This is not to say that a human rights culture has been established or that human rights issues are at the top of the national agenda. In fact the transition to a human rights-based constitutional democracy is proving to be a challenging task. However, there have been significant efforts and achievements: political violence has diminished considerably, 3 enabling free political activity in most parts of the country; the security forces are being restructured; important human rights legislation has been passed; and all human rights institutions provided for in both the Interim and Final Constitutions have finally been established.

Nevertheless, significant obstacles remain, including the ongoing, though significantly reduced, political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, the slow [End Page 628] rate of change in the police and the prison services, and the continuing violence in the taxi industry. 4 In addition, some of the values enshrined in the Interim Constitution are being assailed from a variety of quarters. 5 The popular response to crime presents one avenue of attack; 6 another derives from perceptions that “illegal immigrants” are responsible for an escalation in drug dealing and other crimes; 7 and the “practicalities” of government open a third route for criticism.

The high rate of crime is a critical issue, with major ramifications for human rights, particularly in view of the fact that many South Africans perceive the crime rate to be higher than it really is. 8 Corruption, particularly in government, seems widespread and has the potential to derail the building of a human rights culture. 9 Reducing the crime rate is therefore crucial but so is concrete improvement in the lives of the millions of poor South Africans, particularly in relation to housing 10 and employment. 11 Until the government delivers on its election promises and on socioeconomic rights contained in the Final Constitution, promoting human rights will continue to be more of a dream than a reality.

To determine whether a human rights culture is being developed in South Africa it is important to assess the impact of the various institutions and structures that play a role in the promotion and fostering of human rights. This article therefore examines the Interim Constitution, the Final Constitution, parliament, the Constitutional Court, and “state institutions supporting democracy” 12 and human rights issues in making such an assessment. These institutions are already under scrutiny; a major concern is the high cost of these various institutions (believed to be over R300 million per year), and related public perceptions that statutory human rights bodies and the individuals 13 appointed to them are “on the gravy train.” 14 In the [End Page 629] absence of solid results, such perceptions could have a disastrous impact on the legitimacy of these institutions. Finally, this article looks briefly at policing, correctional services, the military, nongovernmental organizations involved in human rights, and the status of women in order to a draw a conclusion about the current position and future prospects of human rights in South Africa.

II. The Interim Constitution

Since the inauguration of its first democratic government in May 1994, until the adoption of the Final Constitution in February 1997, South Africa had an Interim Constitution, which included a chapter on fundamental rights, 15 commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights. The Interim Constitution was the foundation for the new South Africa. It facilitated the national, provincial, and local governmental elections of 1994, 1995, and 1996, which were milestones in the country’s transition to democracy. It also changed the structure of government and, significantly...

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