Human Rights from Disabled Peoples' Perspective in Africa

Shanaaz Majiet speaks on human rights and disability from the perspective of the African continent. Internet publication URL:

Seminar on Human Rights for Persons with Disabilities
from a North and South Perspective
Stockholm, Sweden 23 August, 1998

Shanaaz Majiet, Lawyer, South Africa

I come from South Africa and am based in Pretoria where I live and work. I am please to be here to share some thoughts with you and talk about some very fundamental challenges we face as a global movement.

I want to share some thoughts with you on human rights from disabled people's perspective from the South and the North. If we are to do justice to this topic over our deliberations today and tomorrow we need to understand the African reality. I am going to talk from the perspective of the African continent; from where the issues are in the sub-Saharan region, Southern African region , and South Africa which is my home.

The essence of what I will share with you today is that human rights needs to be understood within the context of disability globally. If we are to evaluate where we are and where we are going to with human rights we need to be clear on one thing: we can not use the same determinants, assessment, evaluators or indicators to understand whether the Northern or Southern countries are meeting the Standard Rules.

Our first point of break down at the moment in judging countries from the North and the South in relation to the Standard Rules is on the basis of making a whole series of social and political assumptions that do not hold up to the test. When we look at these perspectives from the North and the South there are a lot of cultural differences in both the national and international expectations of what ought to be delivered on when we say human rights. We will be big and brave and honest with ourselves to elaborate on these cultural assumptions that we make when we talk together on human rights.

If one looks at the agenda, we can ask who sets the agenda globally for human rights. My impression and humble opinion is that this agenda is very much set by the North and that we need to take issue with that. We are also talking about looking at the African reality and if we are to say that we want to build stronger partnerships, better relationships, more fruitful co-operation, then we also need to talk about what ought to be the roll between the North and the South in terms of embarking on some consensual level around the human rights agenda.

Now Africa is in trouble in the sense that we are a continent that has come from slave labour, we have come from colonialism, exploitation, apartheid and racial superiority. These ideologies have been used extensively in the continent especially by the North. We are talking about a continent that has a very strong history of scares and vagrant disregard for human rights. We are saying now as a continent, that we want to emerge much more prominently and much more assertively into the discourse around human rights.

Now if we look at the 20th century we understand that the major challenges globally of the 20th century was the issue of race. That does not mean that we have resolved the issue of race. If we look at the 21st century, and this is my take on it, the major challenges of the 21st century especially on the African continent is the issue of poverty.

Africa also needs to recover from and to repair itself from issues around dictatorship, bad governess, maladministration and corruption and look at what this all means for post-20th century agendas regarding human rights. Also we need to look at the 21st century and how we, the disability movement, are going to start to take up and position ourselves around the issue of poverty. Not just poverty alleviation but poverty irradication. That is an issue that is fundamentally probing. Where and how disabled woman, disabled children and disabled men fit into that reality is an important issue.

I also suggest that the leadership role of DPI would need to be re-defined within the new reality of the 21st century. We need to understand that we are in the business of politicising disability and we also need to understand why and how we need to do that. I think that this is part of the success that South Africa has had. I also think we are suggesting that within the disability movement, if we are to learn at a very fast pace around articulating human rights within our reality as persons with disabilities, we need to understand what the leadership demands on us are. It demands of us, in my opinion, that we move beyond our traditional approaches to organising around issues that have become very much the traditional domain within disability discourse. We have to move on to disability rights discourse and have to be bold and venture beyond the non-traditional solutions to situations. I am not sure what that means for us, we can talk together around it. I am sure it demands us to refocus our energies, especially we in South Africa, and to put and keep disability on the agenda of our respective governments and regions.

South Africa has had significant achievements over this last decade through the hard work of people within the movement in South Africa. We are sharing with you some of the major successes that have particularly matured over the past six years. We have a Human Rights Commission appointed through our Constitution and our President. One of the honourable people who is a commissioner is Jerry Nkeli who has been appointed as the leader within the disability movement to be Human Rights Commissioner. We also have another disabled leader on the Commission on Gender Equality. That is another critical piece of machinery or infrastructure that we have managed to put in place and appoint leadership to. We have a leader from our disabled youth on the Youth Commission in South Africa. We have two parliamentarians that are persons with disabilities. This is a good beginning and we are ready for the next elections when we intend to significantly increase the number of disabled persons on the party list to enter parliament with the ANC as the lead supporter providing the political will for the success to grow from. We also have one of our prominent leaders within the disability movement on our local television media corporation. That is a very strategic position in order to influence advocacy and bring about change through the power of the media that we all can appreciate.

I think it would be important for us also to note when looking at South Africa's successes what has allowed us to bring about this level of leadership that we have had in placing people strategically. We see that it was important for the disability movement of South Africa to be and to have been since its inception a decade ago very closely aligned to the liberation movement. Because of the conflicts, inequities, the poverty and the marginalisation, disability has been a consequence of the conflict and violence which the anti-apartheid movement stood against. Many people have acquired their disability in protest to the government that was unjust and an illegitimate state. Disability has been very closely aliened to the political reality of South Africa and that momentum has been an important one for us to capitalise and grow on and to provide the political understanding and analysis of the situation in South Africa. We are achieving some of the fruits of that right now. We are poised now to launch anti-discrimination legislation within the next year. A lot of hard work from a range of different people has gone into the study of best practices around the world and see how we can improve on these to support a very progressive constitution. We have to bold on that to secure our Bill of Rights. An Office of the Status of Disabled Persons has been located at the highest level, lead by a black man within the Deputy President's office. That is a very powerful statement that the government has made. The movement has claimed success over this and rightfully so.

However, we have not arrived as a movement within South Africa, we are very alert and vigilant about where we have come from and where we need to go to. That does not mean that all our challenges have been surpassed, all the inequalities have disappeared over night. I think, given the partnerships that the disability movement in South Africa have structured to gain a political roll, we are well placed to make further advancements over the next years to come. In particular, looking at how Africa needs to position itself for this next century some politicians have said they want to make it the African century. People generally mean with this that Africa is to emerge as part of the global leadership of the South.

It is important to understand what Africa needs to do to repair itself from unequal relations with the North. One would need to appreciate that in South Africa we subscribe and assign very noble values and aspirations as espoused in our Constitution We are talking about that as a country we want to bold a nation that promotes and protects human dignity and achieve equality and advance human rights. That is at the heart of what the new South Africa intends to be about. In order for disability rights to make further advancements and to protect the human rights of all disabled persons in the country it is very important that the South African society be "de-racialised" because the reality of black disabled persons in South Africa is not the same as white disabled person's in South Africa. The reality of black disabled children is not the same as white disabled children's in South Africa. If we are to make sense and changes around human rights and disability rights in South Africa and globally we would need to understand how to position ourselves. We need to fundamentally transform our movements and our structures, to democratise our structures and to mould our leadership so that they will bring about this escalated momentum around advocating human rights and implementing human rights.

In the South's reality we are looking at basic rights, at survival. Many of the rights, and fruits of freedom that you enjoy in the North are well beyond survival. At this stage there is this gap and we would need to close it in our relations to make sense between North and South. The basic thrust of the South African reality is about creating a better life for all and that better life for all has very basic implications around access to the very basic infrastructures like housing, health, sanitation, water in the home (instead of walking miles which is the burden of black rural South African women). We are saying that it is going back to basics in the reality of the South. We would need to see what we need to do to bring that level of humility to our discourse in understanding what we expect as the North from the South and what the realistic achievements for the South are given the reality of the conflict that is looming. A conflict that will probably generate casualties in great number and thereby create more disabled persons with poor infrastructure and know-how.

We are talking about worlds apart, a world where the assumptions that we make would need to be tested and will have to be re-evaluated How can we judge the North and the South in terms of their achievements around the Standard Rules? What are the different determinants that we need to put in place to do that? Otherwise the North again may arrogantly judge the South according to standards that do not apply.

In conclusion I would like to share this: one should not over dramatise or romanticise the achievements we have had as South Africans . I think we can rightfully say that the movement in South Africa needs to be re-energised and to say that we have had successes but however, that the biggest part of our job is still ahead.

We are a nation that has just started to taste our democracy, it is still very new and fragile and we would need to create a culture of human rights. We often say back home that it is important that we bold this culture of human rights where the North and South can meaningfully collaborate around issues beyond rhetoric and try to make sense about what our different realities and infrastructures are able to afford us. Those are the basics I wanted to share with you, to set the scene and ask you to actively engage in it.

Thank you


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