Many people do not enjoy the rights that are promised

Raymond Perrier

Raymond Perrier

Published Mar 21, 2024


Human Rights Day is an important reminder to us of the decades of South African history in which, hideously, many human rights were denied to most of the population. But it is also a moment to consider if all South Africans yet enjoy fully their human rights.

Although, from a legal point of view, the concept of human rights being enshrined in law seems very modern, the underlying concept – that all human beings are equal in dignity and worth – is ancient. It is, for example, evident in the book of Genesis (revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims) where all human beings – male and female – are made alike in the image of God and so share the same dignity.

Though the battle to enshrine human rights in law was won, if we look around us so many people do not enjoy the rights that are promised. That is because rights have to be enacted and, for that to be effective, people have to have the ability to access those rights.

So, for example, the right to due process – which means that you cannot be arrested without clear legal charges followed by a fair and public trial – was an important right to enshrine given the experiences of apartheid.

But that right becomes hollow for the person who cannot access a lawyer and so cannot fight within the law for the legal rights that they are promised.

At the Denis Hurley Centre, we have been assisted for a number of years by the School of Law and the Law Centre at University of KwaZulu-Natal to help homeless people become more aware of their rights and, at least sometimes, be able to access the legal advice that they need.

I did an analysis recently for a book in which I looked at each of the 27 rights that are promised to all citizens by the Bill of Rights in Chapter Two of our Constitution. I compared each of those rights to the experiences that I see every day of homeless people in our city. The results were shocking.

Only in the case of four out of the 27 rights can the homeless be said to enjoy their rights on a par with other South Africans. These are the rights to freedom of belief, of association, of language/culture and of belonging to a community. Sadly, in the case of the other 23 categories of rights there are plenty of examples where homeless people consistently see their rights infringed.

There are 13 areas of rights where homeless people, and anyone in South Africa who is poor, are less likely to enjoy their rights than middle-class South Africans. The desperation for work means that rights to do with forced labour, freedom of movement, freedom of trade and labour representation are in effect very weak.

Furthermore, there are other rights which are enjoyed less by homeless people and other poor people, because they lack either the economic resources or the social resources (confidence, contacts, know how) to access them. These would include freedom of expression and of assembly, and the right to access political rights, housing, healthcare, education, information and courts.

This might be excused on the basis that the country cannot “afford” to give people these rights. More worrying are situations where government inaction means that homeless people’s rights are violated (or denied). A simple test would be this: Does the average homeless person enjoy the same dignity, life expectancy, healthy environment, housing or healthcare as other South Africans (even other poor South Africans)?

From my time of working with the homeless, their constant experience of being rejected by society would make it hard for them even to imagine that they were entitled to enjoy these on a par with others: they expect to be at the back of the queue, to be overlooked, to be ignored, to be refused services.

Inaction is insidious but at least it is free. Even more shocking is when the government spends money on actions, which directly violate the rights of homeless people. Police and private security funded by local government regularly use indiscriminate violence against homeless people, thereby undermining their rights to life, security, privacy, just administrative action and just detention.

One particularly painful example of this is when the ID documents of homeless people are destroyed by the police. This undermines the right to citizenship and, as a result, the ability to access most government services, thus violating a whole range of other rights.

Because of this, the National Homeless Network has decided to focus its demands for the upcoming elections on this one area in particular. Homeless people without IDs (about half of them) have already been denied the right to vote because they could not register with the IEC. So we are demanding of all political parties in this election a commitment to deliver IDs to all South Africans – especially the homeless – who lack them so that in turn some other rights can be accessed.

It is only a first step. But we cannot celebrate a society committed to human rights when we know that so many South African citizens are denied basic rights because of the action and the negligence of the government.

Raymond Perrier is the spokesperson of the Denis Hurley Centre.