South Africans championing human rights

Besides the late Nelson Mandela, many other South Africans have stood up for human rights. Among their names, we can count people like Desmond Tutu and Miriam Makeba. They have all devoted their time and talents to improving the lives of all people.

Desmond Tutu
Human rights advocates have worked tirelessly to improve the world. Among their number is Desmond Tutu; there are many more. (Image: Kristen Opalinski/LUCSA, Wikipedia)

Priya Pitamber

Many people have championed various human rights causes in South Africa. They were outspoken against abuses during the apartheid years, and remained advocates of human rights for all people in post-apartheid South Africa, some till their deaths.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu’s hearty laughter matches his passion to improve the lives of people throughout South Africa and the world. Before he became a priest, Desmond Tutu, born in 1931, was a teacher. Following the introduction of Bantu education, however, he decided to join the church.

In 1978, he was appointed the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, where he became vocal about unjust racial laws. He climbed the ladder in the church: in 1985, Tutu was appointed the Bishop of Johannesburg; in 1986, he was chosen as the Archbishop of Cape Town, the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa – hence his affectionate nickname, “The Arch”.

He was the first black person to hold the position, the highest in the South African Anglican Church. In 1987, he was also named the president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, a position he held until 1997.

Tutu used his position to call for equality, and was a vociferous campaigner for human rights. In 1996, Nelson Mandela appointed him chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the body set up to investigate human rights violations during the apartheid.

Tutu acknowledged that bringing an end to apartheid was a collective effort. “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world,” he wrote on Huffington Post, the American news site, “who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”

Among other accolades, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism in 1986, and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2007.

Here is his simple message to the world:

Helen Suzman

Helen Suzman was an anomaly in parliament – an English-speaking Jewish woman at a time when it was filled with and controlled by predominantly Dutch Reform male Afrikaners. She won her parliamentary seat as a representative of the United Party in 1953, and was an MP for over three decades, resigning in 1989.

Throughout her years in parliament, Suzman remained critical of the numerous unjust apartheid laws. She was vocal in her opposition to the death penalty; she argued against banning the South African Communist Party, and she addressed gender discrimination.

“For an astonishing 36 years, Suzman was a flickering flame of white conscience in apartheid South Africa,” British newspaper The Guardian wrote. “For 13 of those years she carried that light alone, a one-woman party in a parliamentary sanctum of hostile men.”

But leaving parliament was not the end of her involvement in public life: she became the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations and was a member of the Human Rights Commission in a democratic South Africa.

Suzman passed away in 2009; in an editorial, The Star newspaper described her as “an icon of anti-apartheid activism and a woman who took a fearless and often lonely stance during the darkest days of our recent history”.

Miriam Makeba

Singer Miriam Makeba helped to change the world lyric by lyric, yet insisted: “I’m not a political singer.” She told The Guardian: “I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”

Makeba came to be known as Mama Africa, along the way winning not only a Grammy Award for her music, but also the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize in 1986.

In the early 1960s she addressed the United Nations. “I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place?” she asked. “Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your country because the colour of your skin is different to that of the rulers?”

After the end of apartheid, Makeba continued her humanitarian work through the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls and the Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation. In 2008, at the age of 76, she died after suffering a heart attack.

Albie Sachs

In an interview with Australia’s ABC, Justice Albie Sachs described being a judge as an extreme sport. As a law student, Sachs took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign when he was 17. He also attended the Congress of the People when the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown in 1955.

He became a member of the Cape Bar when he was 21, taking on cases in which people had broken racist laws. It made him the subject of security police scrutiny, and eventually he was jailed. By 1966, he was forced into exile, first in England then in Mozambique. In 1988, a bomb placed in his car by South African security agents blew up, causing him to lose an arm and vision in one eye.

But that did not stop Sachs from preparing for a democratic constitution. He returned to South Africa in 1990 and became part of the Constitutional Committee. After 1994, Mandela appointed him to serve as a judge of the Constitutional Court.

Passionate about art, Sachs was instrumental in choosing many of the works of art on show in the court, the highest in the country. “One artist, Judith Mason, was listening to the Truth Commission processes on the radio while she was painting, and she heard the story of an African woman, a freedom fighter, whose naked body was discovered because the man who executed her pointed out where she’d been buried,” he told ABC about a particular work, The Blue Dress, “and the only covering the body had was a little bit of blue plastic bag over her private parts.

“And Judith was very, very moved by this, and she went out and she bought some plastic bags and she sewed them into a dress for the person she called ‘My Sister’, and that dress is now hanging in our court.

“And they represent a kind of a spirit of the sacrifice, the loss, the pain that was involved in the treatment of our democracy, but also the spirit soaring and the rights that are now protected.”

Sachs was also instrumental in bringing about the Civil Union Act, which grants same-sex couples the right to marry. It made South Africa the fifth country in the world to grant such a right.

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