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Keynote Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet,
Ambassador of the European Union to South Africa, Mr Marcus Cornaro,
Members of the diplomatic community,
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Advocate Michael Masutha,
Justices, Ministers and MECs,
Members of the Mandela and Sisulu families,
Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Advocate Bongani Majola 
Chairperson of the Board of the Foundation for Human Rights, Ms Thoko Mpumlwana,
CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Mr Sello Hatang,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour and a privilege to be here this morning as we join countries around the world in marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

I would like to particularly welcome the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, and congratulate her on her appointment. 

We look forward to working with you in advancing the aims of your office, and to playing our part in entrenching a culture of human rights not just in South Africa but across the globe.

Today, we stand on ground heavy with history, a place of both tragedy and triumph. 

Once a prison where the apartheid regime enforced control and terror, this is now the seat of our Constitutional Court. 

Constitution Hill is more than a monument to the past, it is testament to the resilience and unshakeable strength of the human spirit.

The founder of democratic South Africa, President Nelson Mandela, was incarcerated twice at the Old Fort in the early 1960s. 

When he returned decades later to open the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Commemoration he spoke poignantly of his experience, and of the former jail being turned into a place of commemoration “so that future generations will remember what their freedom has been built on”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted at a time when the nations of the world were etched with the scars of war. 

It too is a reminder to current and future generations of what our freedom has been built on. 

The values it espouses – of equality, freedom and dignity – bind us together as the universal fellowship of humanity. 

They commit us to building a world free of oppression and discrimination. 

The Declaration is an implicit rejection of movements, ideologies and doctrines that seek to divide us.

It is a rejection of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and all other forms of bigotry and prejudice.

This historic declaration, this manifestation of humanity’s common conscience, significantly influenced the development of South Africa’s constitutional order. 

It is no coincidence that our Constitution was signed into law by Nelson Mandela on the same day that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been adopted by the UN General Assembly 48 years earlier.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Twenty-four years since the birth of democracy in South Africa, our constitutional order is vibrant, dynamic and in good health. 

Our Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, underpins all our actions as a government working hard to improve the material conditions of our people, uphold the rule of law and safeguard fundamental freedoms. 

It was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that contributed most to entrenching human rights principles into our law, perhaps more than any other international legal instrument.

I had the privilege of being part of the team that was given the momentous task of drafting South Africa’s first democratic Constitution. 

It was a heady and exhilarating time, but a daunting responsibility. 

Across the table were some of our former enemies, representing political parties still firmly stuck in the past – a past where a racial minority enjoyed rights and freedoms to the exclusion, and at the expense, of the majority. 

There we were – revolutionaries, communists, white supremacists, nationalists, religious parties and the like – each bringing a particular world view, and a particular set of interests, to the negotiating table. 

We heard from delegations representing business, labour, traditional leaders, gender activists and many other interest groups who wanted to have their say on a range of issues, from labour rights, to land and property rights, to reproductive health, to minority language protection. 

Foremost among our concerns was that the voices of the South African people should be heard. 

The Constitution was anchored in 34 constitutional principles agreed to in the multi-party negotiations that adopted the interim Constitution. 

They were the foundations of the Constitution’s architecture, and form the bedrock of the constitutional order we wanted to realise.

Principle Two was a practical expression of the values that underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

It said that everyone in South Africa would enjoy all universally accepted fundamental rights, freedoms and civil liberties, which would be provided for and protected by the Constitution. 

The centrality of human rights in our law, and the importance of having a Bill of Rights included in our Constitution, is in no small part thanks to the enduring impact of a declaration that has proven to be as relevant as it is timeless.

Seventy years since it was adopted, South Africa reaffirms its commitment to upholding this pact between the peoples of the world. 

The same collaboration and consensus that defined the period during which we drafted our first Constitution, is what we seek to harness now. 

While we have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, particularly as it relates to socio-economic rights, there is a great deal of unfinished business. 

There is a disjuncture between what the Constitution promises and reality.

For example, the right to gender equality promised by our Constitution is rendered meaningless unless the state and all social actors fulfil their obligation to put instruments in place to support the advancement of this right. 

Whether it is with the setting up of specialised Sexual Offences Courts, or repealing laws that uphold discrimination against women, there must be a practical manifestation of this right.

Similarly, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation is only effective if action is taken against those who continue to use discrimination as a means of exclusion, be it in schools, in the workplace or in places of worship.

The burning issue of land – of access to land and ownership of land – has brought into sharp focus the reality that we still have to extend the property rights enshrined in the Constitution to all South Africans. 

It has also raised the issue that in order to fulfil the obligations contained in the Constitution, it may be necessary in certain circumstances to amend certain provisions of the same Constitution. 

We will all be aware of the robust and welcome debates that have been taking place around land and land ownership in South Africa. 

It is a sign of the health of our democracy that an extensive and wide-ranging process of public participation preceded the decision of our Parliament to adopt the recommendations of a committee with regards to land expropriation.

At the same time, this process has been a barometer of public sentiment and an affirmation of the resilience of our constitutional order. 

Our citizens have participated with enthusiasm, showing that across the length and breadth of the land, they still retain the utmost faith in our Constitution as the primary means by which their rights can be promoted, advanced and enforced.

South Africa is a relatively young democracy. 

The gains we have registered are all the more extraordinary when considering the legacy we have been tasked with correcting.

But we know that for those who are still afflicted by poverty, by the legacy of dispossession and by underdevelopment, our progress has not been fast enough. 

We know that transforming our economy, that transforming patterns of ownership in South Africa, is an imperative. 

We recognise that whether it is access to land or the provision of basic services, we have to give expression to the rights of our people as entrenched in our Bill of Rights. 

For a Constitution to be relevant, it has to live and breathe. 

It is neither static nor sacrosanct. 

It can, and indeed it must be, responsive to the circumstances and conditions of the day – while remaining true to the principles and values that underpin it.

We are proud of the human rights culture that prevails in South Africa today, and which guides all our endeavours. 

Our constitutional order was won through the sheer determination of our people, and many paid a harsh price to see it realised. 

We owe it to the memories of Nelson Mandela, of Albertina Sisulu and of the many other freedom fighters of our country, to keep the faith in constitutionalism alive. 

Far too many of our people still live in squalour and misery, denied opportunity and a chance to better their lives because of poverty, lack of education and other forms of disadvantage.

In delivering the landmark Grootboom judgment 18 years ago, which concerned a group of people who occupied private land earmarked for low-cost housing, Justice Yacoob wrote: 

“The issues here remind us of the intolerable conditions under which many of our people are still living….it is also a reminder that unless the plight of these communities is alleviated, people may be tempted to take the law into their own hands to escape these conditions.”

This is a reminder that our Constitution is the most potent instrument we have to change the lives of our people.
 
It is the means through which we protect the vulnerable against the abuse of power.

The Constitution must never be seen as a constraint to progress or a barrier to transformation.

The Constitution is a means by which we maintain our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The need to protect the inalienable right of every human being to live a life of freedom and of dignity is what brought the nations of the world together 70 years ago. 

It was also the fibre that connected the drafters of our Constitution. 

It is what energises and motivates us today as we seek to advance these rights not just for our own people, but for all of humankind.

We should take great pride that a culture of human rights continues to take root across the globe, even in parts of the world once associated with repression. 

Human rights are universal, they are not relative. 

For as long as only some enjoy them, and others don’t, our task is not over.

For as long as some still face discrimination, oppression and exploitation, none of us can be truly free.
 
Let us join hands in promoting human rights across the globe, so that all people can enjoy the freedoms that we so dearly cherish, and so that we can bequeath a better, fairer world to the generations that will follow.

Today, we celebrate a great moment in the history of humankind that took place 70 years ago.

At its essence, however, this occasion is not so much about the past. 

It is about the future.

I thank you.