The Issue of Human Rights: Stellenbosch as a microcosm of South Africa

Human Rights Day is a celebration. A celebration of how far our beautiful country has come, the struggles we have overcome and how we have come together as a nation to try and realise the inherent dignity of each and every South African. However, it is also a reminder – human rights violations still happen every day, everywhere.

Yes, even in Stellenbosch.

At first glance, Stellenbosch University isn’t anything like the rest of South Africa. The majority is white. And Afrikaans. According to Statistics from the 2011 Census, nationally 8.9% of the population is white and 13.5% of South Africans consider their home language to be Afrikaans. Apparently, you also have to be able to Sokkie, sing “dis altyd lente” during a rugby match, have an “akker” fall on your head and kiss someone in a certain avenue. Or, at the very least, that is the perception of what it means to be a Matie.

Stellenbosch doesn’t seem like the rest of South Africa. However, although we may seem different, we deal with the exact same issues that the rest of SA is dealing with.

South Africa has an enormous division between rich and poor. Our country’s gini coefficient (indicator of inequality) is the 2nd highest in the world. In Stellenbosch, the gini coefficient is said to be 0.61%, one of the highest in South Africa. Stellenbosch is seen as a place of the elite, the rich and soon to be famous South African business people. But don’t let the “Wingerd Gordyn” cover the reality of a very, very poor community. A trip to Kaymandi or any of the other townships just a few kilometres from main campus paints a very different picture than that what we see at the homepage.

Also, just like the rest of the country, we are trying to figure out how to uphold the constitution and incorporate the constitutional values of human dignity ,non-discrimination, non-sexism, non-racialism into our daily lives.

What does these values and rights mean practically?

We consider human rights violations to be the atrocities happening in Syria. Or, for those who watched and shared and tweeted the Kony2012 video, Uganda. We have this perception that human rights are only violated in the most horrid of circumstances – like to young girl gang-raped in India earlier this year, or closer home, the tragedy of the events that lead to Anene Booysen’s rape and death.

The reality is that there are human rights violations, every day. In South Africa. And in Stellenbosch.

It only takes a quick glance over Die Matie or Die Vryestudent in 2012 to get a sense of what I am trying to say. Whether it is homophobic remarks made by ’n HK member, or race-based room placements or racial attacks or even the controversy surrounding the Taaldebat or the Koshuisplasingsbeleid. There are so many complexities in trying to unify a university and at the same time effect redress.

For me all of it boils down to human rights. How we understand our own rights and how we understand our responsibilities. And figuring out what to do with (seemingly) competing human rights. Just take religion as an example – your right to freedom of speech vs someone else’s right to religion. Or my right to practice religion vs your right not to practice religion. This gets more complicated when you start to ask yourself about prayer before Huisvergaderings or the fact that Metanoia is currently the only residence serving Halaal food. And so the list goes forth.

The sinister view? The whole country is trying to figuring this out, why even try. The hope? Of we can get it right here, we can get it right in the rest of South Africa as well. As established, Stellenbosch is a microcosm of South Africa.

Last year I lived in a LLL House with 4 other people. The theme of our house was Gender Equality. The 5 of us couldn’t be more diverse – different studies, different gender, different home languages, different ethnicities, different religious views and different sexualities. To be quite honest, we rarely agreed on anything – from the value of the Olympics, to the rules of Poker to philosophical debates regarding the purpose of life. However, the important thing is that we lived together. For a whole year. In somewhat harmony. We respected each other, got a sense one of who the other person is and could thus see where someone else (and their particular view) was coming from. No one was right. No one was wrong. We just tried to find solutions together. In that process, we broke down our own stereotypes. Our own assumptions. Our own preconceived ideas. We were housemates, above and beyond anything else. In other words, we were free, equal and recognised as individuals with inherent human dignity.

Now, this gives me hope. If we could get it right in our LLL House, we should be able to get it right in the greater Stellenbosch community. That idea that this is your home. That you belong. No matter your age, gender, financial status, sexuality, religious views or anything else that seems to divide you from the person walking next to you on the Rooiplein. We are all Maties, but more than that we all have the same human rights. We share the same constitutional values. We are all free, equal in dignity and rights.

And if we can get that right here, we should be able to get it right in the rest of South Africa as well.

Thus, Human Rights Day for me is a cue that we still have a long way to go (don’t matter where in South Africa you are) but also gives me hope that we are closer to Nelson Mandela’s words than we have ever been before – “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without and fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Anina Botha