The celebration of Human Rights Day comes with a multitude of images that represent human rights. Three, above all, receive the most imprints.
Most widely used is the raised and clenched fist, the universal sign of the freedom struggle. The second is a raised open hand, fingers pointing outward, and the third, several hands of different sizes and colours, interlocked and holding.
Their different, though related meanings are plain to see: A clenched fist to show the struggle for human rights remains as fierce and urgent as ever, an open hand that represents the freedoms of human rights achieved for many, and interlocking hands holding to represent the aspiration for freedoms shared among all.
Two ideas underpin all three, namely that human rights come through struggle and are about freedom.
The different images, however, do not only represent three distinct objectives; they also establish a timeline to mark the flow of history as humanity struggles for and with freedom – an underlying continuum to plot the progress of the struggle in different contexts, situations and histories.
The notion of a historical timeline of how a society makes sense of its progress with freedom also emerged in the run-up to and on Human Rights Day this week.
In his address on the day, Julius Malema outlined the argument of the EFF in calling for a national shutdown to take place the day before.
Human rights are absent in a country plagued by, among others, load shedding, bad roads, no jobs and failing basic services, the argument goes.
The shutdown would reveal a nation in protest of the state, a next generation still struggling for freedom, and therefore, a celebration of Human Rights Day as nothing but premature.
Malema, accordingly, called for the day to rather be named for the Sharpeville massacre and remember its martyrs and implied that the struggle continues unabated from the days of Sharpeville and is, or at least should be as fierce as ever – South Africa is no free country yet.
In contrast, President Ramaphosa emphasised the purpose of Human Rights Day in South Africa, namely to, as we remember the terrible sacrifices of the Struggle and of the Sharpeville massacre, celebrate how far we’ve come as a nation in building a new society.
We are no more the country of the past, and as state and citizens, our freedoms are realised, the argument will go. It is a declaration of a country that moved forward and today offers a very different reality. One reading casts a nation with a clenched fist to galvanise national protest, while the other casts a nation with interlocked and holding hands to inspire.
Both readings, however, reveal an underlying dynamic of a struggle with the “fear of freedom”. This refers to the struggle of a society and its citizens to make sense of freedom and the fearsome demands a new and unfamiliar future of freedom brings.
Oppressive hierarchies define their solidarities and place in the world for citizens, simply demanding compliance, settling into the comfort of the familiar, even when to their detriment – a reality that persists when Human Rights Day would reproduce the definitions of the past and call for a national shutdown.
Freedom, however, demands a new awareness of context, a realisation of your power to imagine and act anew, and the courage to break with the familiar, forsaking old solidarities and sacrificing the comforts of an unconscious past – a reality that grows when remembrance reveals progress; when clenched fists make way for open hands.
* Dr Rudi Buys.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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