20 March 2019 | Story Mamosa Makaya
Human Rights

Human Rights Month is a time to reflect on the nation’s journey to democracy, the attainment of change, and the building of awareness and education about human rights in academic institutions and society at large.
Human Rights Day in South Africa is historically linked to 21 March 1960, and the events of the Sharpeville Massacre where 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a crowd that had gathered in peaceful protest against the pass laws. In observing this important time, Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor said: “As a university community, let us join the rest of the country and celebrate the rights of all people to be protected from violation, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Let us observe this day and stand together to promote respect for human rights.”

Human rights in action

At the University of the Free State (UFS), Human Rights Month is marked with celebratory events, awareness campaigns and fund-raising for social justice causes in faculties and departments by staff and students alike throughout the month of March, and is seen as an important time to show support for human rights in our society. The Student Representative Council (SRC) recently launched the #UFSWalkToUhuru project that aims to raise R2 million by soliciting academic and financial support from the public, stakeholders affiliated with the UFS, staff and students, to enable their fellow students to register for and continue with their studies across all three UFS campuses in 2020.

The Dean of Student Affairs, Pura Mgolombane said “Education is a fundamental human right which all citizens of a country should have an opportunity to access. Due to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, most of the majority of our people could not be educated or educate their children.  The Walk to Uhuru campaign that has been initiated by the SRC becomes not only a social justice issue but a human rights response to the poor and impoverished. When the nation responds as we hope it will, it will be humanising not only the lived experiences of the students who will be beneficiaries of the fund, but to their families, society and to the nation. So, we call upon everyone to demonstrate their humanity (Ubuntu) by donating whatever they can.”

The first tier involves a 350 km walk from the Bloemfontein Campus to the UFS Qwaqwa Campus from 17 to 22 March 2019. On the second tier, the group continues the journey by road through four countries for 5411 km to Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, from 20 June to 20 July 2019. 

The fundraising walk is a student-led initiative that seeks to promote and advocate educational rights to less privileged students, mitigating the exclusion of the financially disadvantaged and promoting their right to education.

Students, staff, and the public can make contributions/donations to the initiative by visiting the UFS Walk to Uhuru #givengain account page

Support, promotion and advocacy for human rights

The UFS through its various structures has adopted policies that recognise the rights of its students and staff with policies such as the anti-discrimination, promotion of equality and social justice policy and procedures, which is a demonstration of its commitment to providing opportunities for staff and students to pursue excellence and satisfaction in their academic and social lives.
The Free State Centre for Human Rights (FSCHR) was established in 2016, with a focus on the relationship between human rights and transformation at UFS and runs a research division which runs postgraduate teaching programme, while its advocacy division presents human rights training and awareness courses to staff and students, coordinates the resolution of human rights-related disputes, and assists management on an ad hoc basis in human rights-related policy development. The centre’s advocacy office held a human rights awareness campaign at the Thakaneng Bridge on the Bloemfontein Campus, from Thursday, 14 March to Wednesday 20 March with lucky draws and prizes. 

South Africa has included indivisible human rights in our own Bill of Rights, in Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The Bill of Rights also comprehensively addresses South Africa’s history of oppression, colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism and other forms of human violations. The Bill of Rights embeds the rights of all people in our country in an enduring affirmation of the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.

Prof Danie Brand, Director of the FSCHR said “at the UFS I like to think that we have a different understanding of rights: we see human rights as regulating relationships between us, as mechanisms that require us to enter into conversation with one another when we have disputes and reach solutions in which all of our human rights are, even if not vindicated, then at least taken account of. The rigorous process of engagement and consultation about what to do with the statue of MT Steyn illustrates this; as does the current process in which we are considering together what is and what is not acceptable as protest action on campus. Human rights require us to think and to talk, before we act.”

The field of human rights touches on a myriad of areas at higher education institutions. It is therefore an opportunity for staff and students to become aware of the immense contribution they make in their daily work, especially in academic areas such as gender studies, law, health sciences, and in support services structures such as staff and student wellness, LGBTIQ+ advocacy, protection services and with the work of the Centre for Universal Access and Disabilities, amongst others.

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