Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks in support of Tibet on Tuesday, April 8, 2008, in San Francisco. About a thousand demonstrators gathered on the eve of San Francisco’s Olympic torch run to denounce China’s human rights record. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, a day to take stock of how we, as a nation, are promoting or hindering the basic human rights of those around us. Each time I return to South Africa following a visit to a more prosperous nation, I am struck anew by the dire poverty that continues to plague my country and, indeed, my continent.

In South Africa, one of the most prosperous of the African nations, we have close to 40 percent unemployment. That means four in 10 of all working-age adults who are not currently studying are without a sustained income. That means four out of 10 South African families go to bed hungry. Perhaps more than four out of 10 children attend school without eating breakfast, without school books, perhaps without school shoes. And what of the many children who are parentless, homeless and have to care for their siblings, because poverty has torn their families apart?

One clear lesson I learnt through my experiences with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that people are three-dimensional. What I mean by that is that every person has their own struggles. Each person is facing their own hardships.

I have also learned that each person has an inherent humanity and dignity worth fighting for, worth championing, worth defending. Sometimes people don’t have the strength or the means to fight this fight on their own. Sometimes it is our responsibility, as members of humanity, to do what we can.

It is the nature of my unique role in this world that I have been exposed to some of the worst injustices that humanity has inflicted upon itself. But I have also been consistently and wonderfully exposed to the incredible human spirit which insists on seeking out hope, on doing what must be done for a better world and playing its role, however humble, to be the change for good.

Each time I see the ingenuity and passion of ordinary people using what they have to make life better for others, to fight for the rights of our fellow human beings, I am greatly inspired.

And such people surround us.

One group which has my heart is the Amy Biehl Foundation.

The foundation was named after an American student who crossed the ocean to make a difference in South Africa. Despite being killed in a terrible act of violence, Amy did make a difference and continues to do so. Her parents set up the foundation in her memory to continue the work she began, alongside those who killed her. Every day the foundation provides a nutritious meal to over 2 000 school children, after which the kids attend inspiring and creative after-school programmes set to unlock their talent and make learning enjoyable.

The foundation is supported in part by Relate Bracelets. Made in South Africa and sold in aid of various wonderful causes, a portion of the proceeds of each bracelet sold goes to the specific charity (such as Amy Biehl), but on top of that the production of the bracelets also supports the unemployed youth, the refugees who have come to seek safety in our country and the township gogos who all play a role in making the bracelets.

Relate Bracelets and the foundation are, of course, just two of countless organisations and groups doing what they can with where they are right now to make a difference and to facilitate basic human rights.

The trick is, I think, that in order to make a difference, we need to start somewhere and do it together. There really is something that any one of us can do.

My challenge to you on this Human Rights Day is to simply do something; make a difference where you are. Smile at a stranger. Spread love. Be determined to leave each place a little better, a little brighter, a little happier than how you found it.

Amy’s parents have more reason than many for hate, and yet they chose love and a tireless commitment to improve the lives of those around them. You can too.

l Desmond Tutu is archbishop emeritus of Cape Town. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Support a cause – visit or for more information.

Cape Argus