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25 May 2020 | Story Prof Danie Brand | Photo iStock

What can we say about human rights in the context of celebrations on the idea(l) of African unity?

Some of the stock-in-trade questions that arise are, to me, not interesting. So, for example, to ask whether human rights are indigenous to Africa – in the sense that they come from here (whether they are African) – is senseless. If human rights are indeed rights inherent to every human being – of course they are and of course they do – just as they are indigenous to and come from everywhere where human beings live their lives together.

To ask instead what human rights bring to, can do, or mean for Africa, borders on the insulting. This question suggests that human rights are somehow extraneous to Africa, to be brought as a gift from elsewhere. It suggests, therefore, thinly veiled neo-imperialism.

Far more interesting is to ask what Africa brings to human rights – what human rights are in Africa. To this question there are several well-trodden, but still important answers.

First, as appears clearly from the title of Africa’s central human-rights document, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa brings to human rights the idea of collective, or peoples’ rights. Human rights in Africa are embedded in the fights of various African nations and the continent itself against – as Kwame Nkrumah called it – ‘imperialism and its handmaidens, colonialism and neo-colonialism’, fights of peoples for self-determination against external domination. From this arose recognition for the rights of peoples, such as the right to exist; the right to development; the right to self-determination; and the right to freedom from foreign economic domination and exploitation. This is significant, because it is frank about the political nature of rights and the importance of rights for political struggle against continuing oppression and exploitation. 

Second, as also appears from the ACHPR, Africa has brought to human rights the idea that rights have duties as their corollary. This is the idea that rights are not individual, but nested in relationships; that we each have our rights because we live together with others and as members of a broader collective, and so, we have duties towards those others and towards the broader collective. These are duties to regard others, but also to regard the collective, partly again, in its struggle for self-determination and in a sense, recognition. To take account of others, for example, individuals under African human rights law have the duty to exercise their rights “with due regard to the rights of others” and the duty “to respect and consider … fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding, and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance”. To regard the collective, individuals have, among others, the duty “(t)o serve (the) national community by placing (all) physical and intellectual abilities at its service”; “to preserve and strengthen the national independence and the territorial integrity of (their) country and to contribute to its defense in accordance with the law”; and, not surprisingly, the duty “(t)o contribute to the best of (their) abilities, at all times and at all levels, to the promotion and achievement of African unity”. Perhaps more controversially, individuals also have a duty to exercise their rights with due regard to “collective security, morality and common interest” and the duty “(t)o preserve and strengthen social and national solidarity”. This, in turn, is significant, because it suggests a break with, or at least a departure from traditional liberal notions of rights, based on an atomistic vision of the individual and intended for the protection only of individual rights against others.

A third notion brought to human rights by Africa, is perhaps a little less known. In a manifesto adopted at the 1945 Pan-Africanist Congress in Manchester, we find the following arresting phrase as an expression of the Pan-Africanist ideal: “We want the right … to express our thoughts and emotions; to adopt and create forms of beauty.”

Here, I read a right that I have not yet come across elsewhere. This is certainly not only the already deeply entrenched right to freedom of expression and artistic or academic freedom that we are used to in Western notions of rights. Instead, this phrase suggests to me a right to both an epistemology and an ontology – to both understand the world and live in the world as we (choose to) do. How is this different from the notions of peoples’ rights to self-determination and people’s duty to assist in the quest for that self-determination referred to above? There seems to be an element of self-determination at play also in this right to understand and live in the world as we do – it is also the right of peoples to understand and to live as they choose.

What attracts me to this right, apart from the beauty of its formulation, is its self-confidence – the way in which it is asserted without reference to, not relative to, anyone or anything else. A common theme in both the notion of peoples’ rights and of duties correlative to rights in African human rights law, is the importance attached to achievement of self-determination, in a sense of recognition for Africa, its peoples, and the individuals who make up those peoples – that is, self-determination and recognition as against imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism. Although current conditions of neo-colonialism and the continuance of colonialism in most ways clearly require this oppositional stance and formulation, it does present a problem. It opens both these notions to the charge that they perpetually “reduce (us) to the status of complainants” (Ndebele 2000); that in their oppositional formulation, “the confronted other (imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism) is still recognised as the source of power, even at a time when political power has already been wrestled away from the other” (Van der Walt 2001).

A right to express ideas and emotions and adopt and create forms of beauty – to an epistemology and ontology – is instead asserted on its own terms. It seems a right to understand and live in the world as we (choose to) do, not against, but alongside others. As such, it offers a glimpse of “dispensations of true African cultural recovery and re-orientation” (Falola 2018).

This article was written by Prof Danie Brand - Director: Free State Centre for Human Rights

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