Speech at the Launch of the South African Human Rights Commission – 1996/03/21

Your Worship the Mayor, Mr Isaac Mogase;
Chairperson and esteemed members of the Human Rights Commission;
Deputy President F.W. de Klerk;
President of the Constitutional Court,
Justice Arthur Chaskalson;
The Hon Mrs Adelaide Tambo;
Mr Brian Burdekin;
Distinguished participants:
It is right that we launch the Human Rights Commission on this important day in the life of our country, Human Rights Day.

Its significance is further enhanced by the fact that, in commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre, the United Nations also designated March 21st as the International Day for the elimination of racism and racial discrimination.

We take this opportunity to congratulate the Chairperson and the other members of the Commission on their election as members of the Commission.

That act, and your swearing in today, signify the confidence our people have in you that, individually and collectively, you are fit and proper persons to discharge the responsibilities which fall within the wide and challenging mandate of the Commission.

I would like to believe that as a country, regardless of our past and indeed because of it, we are committed to the continuous and sustained material and spiritual upliftment and fulfillment of all the individual persons who constitute our society and therefore the construction of a better society for all.

I take it that this is what we mean when we speak of a people-centred society – that the criterion we wish to be used to judge the success or the failure of our actions is the extent to which these actions result in the betterment or the worsening of the human condition.

By the adoption of that position, we commit ourselves to the creation of an ever-expanding frontier of human dignity for all our people, the young and the old, men and women, black, white and disabled.

The achievement of that dignity for the individual must surely be predicated on the freedom of the individual to determine his or her destiny.

All of us who have lived through the recent epoch-making transition which has enabled the majority of our people to exercise this fundamental right for the first time, will understand the full import of that statement.

But we also know that we cannot speak of the dignity of the individual in a situation in which that individual is not free from hunger, from want, from ignorance and fear.

The beggars on our streets, both young and old;

The women who have to sell their bodies in order to make a living;

Others who have to succumb to domestic violence because they cannot detach themselves and their children from the breadwinner;

The disabled who are treated as parasitic welfare cases;

Those who live in fear of violence from whatever quarter;

Those who kill or are killed because of the terrible and blind force of superstition born of ignorance.

All these speak to us of the stark fact that the attainment of human dignity cannot be reduced merely to the attainment of civil and political rights.

These conditions which we seek to address also focus our attention on the all-round development of the human being which goes beyond the material, on that sphere of existence that separates the human from the animal and has to do with spiritual fulfillment which, in part, requires that the doors of learning and of culture should be opened to all.

The possibility for each one of us to enjoy the human dignity whose parameters we have sought to describe, stands at the centre of the humane society we seek to construct.

The pursuit of this objective, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants adopted by the United Nations, our own Bill of Rights and the law which created the Human Rights Commission have bestowed on the Commission an ambitious mandate.

Your work cannot but be an effort to give concrete expression to the hopes and aspirations of all South Africans.

In launching the Commission we are giving reality to an undertaking we have made to our citizens. But clearly, the rest of the institutions of society, both government and non-governmental, are not deserting their own role in the new human rights endeavour.

As a country, by the creation of the Commission, we have added a vital partner for the achievement of the common objective.

We believe firmly that you have both the capacity and the will to discharge your responsibilities at the cutting edge of the struggle to entrench a human rights culture.

We wish you success in your work in the interests of all our people who look forward to a life of liberty, justice and happiness.

Thank you.

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