Opening Remarks by the Deputy Minister
van der Merwe to the Seminar on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights under the African Charter Pretoria 13
Ladies and Gentlemen:
On behalf of the Government and people of South Africa
I would like to welcome each and every one of you to
our country. Your presence in this room, your participation
in this dialogue represents an unequivocal will and
a genuine and heartfelt desire to take up the fullness
of the challenges presented to us as Africans, under
the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
I am pleased to have been invited here to share my
thoughts at the opening of this important discussion
on economic, social and cultural rights under the African
I think it is important that we locate this discussion
within its broader context of entrenching peace and
stability, democratization and the attainment of sustainable
economic and social development. Within this broader
milieu of change the role of the African people as their
own liberators should also be emphasised .
The last decade of the 20th Century witnessed the start
of the second wave of democracy to sweep the African
continent. This second wave also co-incided with the
culmination of our own liberation struggle in South
Africa and the holding of our first democratic elections
in 1994 that ushered in a new era for the people of
In fact the early years of the 1990s saw extensive discussions
and negotiations between different parties and people
in South Africa to reach common ground, to avoid misunderstanding
and conflict and to provide an agreed-upon framework
for the establishment of a new state. Without these
processes, arguably the transition to a new South Africa
would not have been as peaceful as it was and the ground
would not have been prepared for the changes that were
Our own experiences in this regard necessitated that
the transformation itself of society, of the economy,
should involve not only changing the legislative framework
and putting in place new policies and action plans,
but also that we carry out certain political processes
to promote unity and to encourage reconciliation, that
we put in place mechanisms and set up independent institutions
to safeguard freedoms and rights. We also recognized
that an all-embracing approach meant as well that we
would need to actively affirm an African identity.
Thus at the adoption of our New Constitution in 1996,
then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki declared proudly:
"I am an African." This statement may have
been an ordinary and perhaps obvious one for those in
the rest of Africa, but for us in South Africa it was
more than that. It was not simply a statement of fact,
but it was both an act of consciousness - asserting
both the right to be and the right to be free - and
it was also an act of faith in an African future - a
declaration to the world that South Africa is of the
African continent and not apart.
This was the first important step towards cultural,
social, political and economic integration from a new
country whose predecessor had for decades of apartheid
rule considered itself as other, as different, as part
of a Western world that could exploit Africa as it wished.
This fundamental change in identity was almost as if
the country had shed its skin and was now revealing
its true self, beginning to articulate its own values,
its own systems of thoughts, re-thinking, re-shaping
and re-fashioning itself as an African nation.
Through these words, President Mbeki also managed to
bring together different ideological strands of the
South African liberation movement into a composite and
comprehensive understanding of what it meant to belong
to a people, a free nation and a new country on the
African continent. It was a profound rejection of our
colonial and apartheid past, its negation of respect
for human rights and the concomitant suffering it entailed
and its very denial of African people as equal to others,
instead reducing them to the realm of non-Europeans
and hence non-people. It looked to the possibility of
an egalitarian society and a world in which Africa could
take its rightful, proud and equal place among other
continents on the international centre-stage.
He opened the road for people to recognize their own
powers and both to imagine and construct a reality in
which they really were free to be whatever they wanted
to be, to believe that Africa could succeed, that indeed
we have it within our powers to end the long impoverishment
of our people and to build a prosperous future. This
could be seen as marking the beginning of a new and
united South African nation hard at work in collective
action to build a better life for all.
Thus the preamble to the new Constitution in no uncertain
terms declared that: "South Africa belongs to all
who live in it, united in our diversity" and acknowledged
the need to "heal the divisions of the past and
establish a society based on democratic values, social
justice and fundamental human rights" and "to
lay the foundations for a democratic and open society
in which government is based on the will of the people
and every citizen is equally protected by the law."
A Bill of Rights was accepted as a cornerstone of democracy,
enshrining and inscribing the rights of all people in
the country and affirming the democratic values of human
dignity, equality and freedom. These rights included
the right to equality before the law, the right to dignity,
to freedom and security of person, of religion, of expression,
of political rights. It also included the right to access
to health care, food, water and social security, the
right to basic education, to use language and participate
in the cultural life of one's choice, the rights of
cultural, linguistic and cultural minorities as well
as access to information, freedom of trade, the right
to an environment that is not harmful etc.
This has been the South African framework that has
created new space for democratic participation since
1994, allowing the South African people to assert themselves
individually and collectively and to protect their rights.
This framework is still being further forged on the
ground as people become more conscious of the extent
of their rights, as we deepen democratic life, as we
cement relations between government and people, and
as communities begin to see how these rights can help
them to improve their daily lives.
But in the international arena, as African countries
it is also necessary that we commit ourselves jointly
as governments and as civil society to the re-affirmation
of our identity as Africans, and to ensure the entrenched
protection of the human rights of all our peoples.
Certainly we need to work in tandem with other African
Governments and other continental structures to ensure
greater protection and enjoyment of all human rights,
and in particular the economic, social and cultural
rights of all our people.
While all internationally recognised human rights are
deemed to be inalienable, indivisible and interdependent,
the protection by Governments of civil and political
rights can more easily be immediately realised through
appropriate political will, legislation, monitoring
and policing. Second and third generation economic,
social and cultural rights are more difficult to focus
on. The protection and promotion of economic, social
and cultural rights presents us with greater challenges
as these rights are based on the notion of progressive
But what strengthen our capacity to deal with these
rights are the broad spectrum of existing initiatives
that are being pursued at the continental level to protect
and guarantee human rights in general.
As Africa, we have embarked on a comprehensive transformation,
reform and renewal strategy that has as its over-arching
objective to break the vicious cycle of political instability,
to address the lack of a human rights culture, to end
poverty and underdevelopment, and to improve Africa's
capacity to defend and advance its own interests as
countries, regional blocs and as an All-African project
in the global arena.
The key building blocks of this strategy have been
increased political unity and concerted action through
the African Union (AU), as well as accelerated socio-economic
transformation through the macro-economic development
programme of the AU, namely, the New Partnership for
Africa's Development (NEPAD).
The establishment of the AU through the Constitutive
Act, with its profound vision and progressive principles,
has generated high expectations for rapid political,
social and economic progress. NEPAD seeks to complement
the Constitutive Act by providing a holistic, comprehensive
and integrated strategic policy framework and programme
The Constitutive Act sets out the core values and principles
that the continent is committed to following while NEPAD
has sought to implement these values and principles
in a concrete manner and, in this regard, has identified
a number of conditions for sustainable development and
growth, including Democracy and Good Political, Economic
and Corporate Governance.
The Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), in
its Preamble, explicitly acknowledges the promotion
and protection of human and people's rights, the consolidation
of democratic institutions and culture, as well as the
protection of human and people's rights, the consolidation
of democratic institutions and culture, and ensuring
good governance and the rule of law. The Preamble also
acknowledges the need to build a partnership between
governments and all segments of civil society, in particular
women, youth and the private sector, in order to strengthen
solidarity and cohesion among Africa's peoples.
In order to give effect to these undertakings, a Peace
and Security Council, African Court of Justice, Pan-African
Parliament and Economic, Social and Cultural Council
have been or are being created as organs of the AU.
In addition, the African Commission on Human and Peoples'
Rights (ACHPR) was created under the Charter. Two important
Protocols also flow from the Charter, namely, the Protocol
to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights
on the Rights of Women in Africa, which is currently
being ratified by Member States, and the Protocol establishing
the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights, which
has recently come into force.
The latter Protocol is complementary to the work of
the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
(ACHPR) and ensures greater protection and remedies
for the victims of human rights abuses.
Furthermore, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM)
has been developed under the NEPAD process in order
to promote democracy, good governance and the attainment
of peace and stability. It is the first mechanism of
its kind in the world, and reflects the commitment of
African States to open their governments to scrutiny.
The APRM is both significant and revolutionary in that
it addresses the fundamental issues of credibility and
sustainability of policy reforms in a credible, transparent
manner and it breaks new ground
It is in the context of these latter day developments
that the rights in the African Charter should be seen.
Moreover, the vast majority of African countries have
also ratified the six fundamental human rights treaties
of the United Nations that elaborate in detail the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, namely the International
Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
(ICERD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention
on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against
Women (CEDAW), the Convention against Torture and Other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
(CAT), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
It is important to reiterate that all fifty-three member
states of the AU have become parties to the African
Charter on Human and People's Rights. Certainly, the
acceptance of the Charter by all Member States of the
AU bodes well and strengthens the moral force of the
Charter on the African continent.
What ought to be highlighted about the African Charter
for discussion are the following four important areas:
· The Charter provides a clear statement about
the indivisibility of human rights by including first,
second and third generation rights alongside each other
in a single document.
· The inclusion of third generation rights is
closely linked to the second feature, which is "peoples'
rights". Thus the rights recognised are not only
those of individuals, but also of "peoples".
Thus peoples have the right, amongst others, to existence,
to self-determination, to freely dispose of their natural
resources, and to development.
· Another distinguishing feature is the emphasis
placed on individual "duties". The individual
has duties towards other individuals, his or her family,
towards the community, towards the state whose nationality
he or she happens to possess, and to the African and
· Fourthly, "African" moral values
are included in the Preamble and in the emphasis on
the family. States are under a duty to promote and protect
"morals and traditional values recognised by the
These four important areas offer us challenges that
this seminar ought to take up as we attempt to entrench
human and peoples' rights on the African continent.
Moreover, the relationships between economic development
and social progress as well as the realization of cultural
advancement need to further fleshed out. An African
renaissance can only be accomplished through wading
through these different yet related areas, so that we
move forward through an integrated, co-ordinated approach
that seeks to unite these concerns rather than address
I have attempted to describe the South African experience,
young as it may well be and to briefly describe the
current continental framework in place that should serve
to protect and advance economic, social and cultural
rights, amongst others. Now the urgent tasks at hand
are to ensure that the mechanisms and institutions we
have in our possession become dynamic, meaningful entities
that perform the tasks that they are mandated to perform.
I believe that the political will is there to succeed.
The challenge however remains for the provision of to
ensure that the ideals espoused are advanced in a concrete
manner and that we give tangible content to these rights.
The field of economic, social and cultural rights requires
the allocation and prioritization of resources to make
them a living reality that is won for African people
on the ground, as these rights collectively will have
the most impact in terms of securing a better quality
of life for people at grass roots level.
But the resources needed are not simply financial but
also intellectual - in coming to this seminar you are
already contributing your knowledge and ideas to the
attainment of these rights. Your intellectual contribution
is highly appreciated as are your efforts to popularize
the African Charter.
Enshrined in the Charter is ultimately an assertion
of the fundamental right to be, the right to be African,
the right to possess the present and the future - and
to shape the world from our African worldview that will
take us to a common destination of development.
The future is not bleak and even this week we shall
witness the Pan African Parliament being inaugurated
in its permanent home in South Africa. Let the discussions
at this seminar move us forward to another homecoming
in our assertion of the economic, social and cultural
rights of the African people.
I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward
to seeing your concrete recommendations on the course
of actions that should be taken.
I thank you.