The freedom from poverty for all in South Africa is one that we must still overcome, says the writer. File photo: Antoine de Ras

Lawrence Mushwana says the SA Human Rights Commission is engaging with various players to consider the effects of business on human rights.

Former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Nelson Mandela shared the same words when they stated that “there is no easy walk to freedom”.

Twenty years ago, when South Africans took the courageous and necessary steps towards freedom and democracy, many would have shared the sentiments expressed by Nehru and Mandela: that the journey towards freedom is a difficult yet inspiring path that every human being must take.

For many South Africans, our reflection on freedom is both personal and political. For the majority of previously disenfranchised South Africans, our reflection is deeply political because April 27, 1994 marked the first day in our history when we were able to exercise our constitutional political right.

Casting a vote in 1994 for many South Africans, especially black men and women, will feature as one of the most memorable and significant attainments of their lives.

So significant are political rights to our history and country that one of the founding provisions of our constitution sets out the key value of universal adult suffrage.

Finding our voices on April 27, 1994, ended years of silence in which our human rights had been denied.

As we again prepare to vote on May 7, we can only be reminded once again of where we have come from and how precious our democracy is.

The freedom to make decisions and choices in our personal and political lives is one that we must celebrate. It is when we are faced with choices, even difficult choices, that this elusive concept of freedom is often appreciated.

In 1994, when South Africans went to exercise their right to vote, they were presented with a choice of 19 political parties. Almost 20 million South Africans made their political choices known and chose the political parties that would walk with them on the newfound road called Freedom.

Twenty years later, our political landscape of constitutional democracy has opened the space for more political parties to emerge, thus creating more choices for people.

This is one testament to what freedom has meant over the past 20 years.

Freedom places an enormous responsibility on those who are free. Our freedom from hunger, fear or ignorance has partially been addressed through various government programmes.

However, the freedom from poverty for all in South Africa is one that we must still overcome. Freedom from poverty entails economic freedom, which enables individuals to have financial control over their lives and requires us to take responsibility for those without access to income-generating activities and employment opportunities.

It includes those who are employed but work in inhumane and exploitative conditions. It is this freedom that brings a key player who is often forgotten in the debate – the business community.

Our reflection on 20 years of democracy often begins and ends with an analysis of government and we often ignore the pivotal role that business stakeholders, domestically and internationally, have played in our quest for freedom.

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has a responsibility to promote and protect the human rights of those who have yet to enjoy economic freedom and live in poverty, which often has devastating impacts on people’s dignity.

In carrying out its responsibilities, the SAHRC has chosen the theme of Business and Human Rights, which it will focus on during this year and next. Our reflection on what freedom means in the context of our mandate and theme requires the SAHRC to engage with various players in order to consider the impact that business has had on human rights.

We will approach our work through a business and human rights lens and seek to understand and reflect on what business has done to advance economic freedom for everyone in our country.

Intrinsically linked to freedom is human dignity. This concept features strongly through our constitution. It also featured as a thread in the rich tapestry of teachings from Mandela.

During his first State of the Nation address in May 1994, Mandela laid the foundation for ensuring that government would entrench the notion of freedom and human dignity in all its policies and interventions.

In its reflection of 20 years of democracy, the government’s report (issued by the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in February) lauds some of the significant achievements. Included among these is the establishment of the SAHRC. As with all institutions that support constitutional democracy, the commission requires the necessary financial support from government in order to be fully independent. It is through this independence that it will enjoy the support and respect of its various stakeholders.

Indeed, the constitution elaborates on this support and states specifically that the SAHRC and similar institutions supporting constitutional democracy must be “assisted and protected by organs of state… to ensure their impartiality, dignity and effectiveness”. State institutions supporting constitutional democracy were created specifically to nurture our democracy and there is still much work that needs to be done to ensure everyone’s human rights are promoted, respected and protected.

The SAHRC will next year mark its own 20 years of existence. We too will use our 20th anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in delivering on our constitutional mandate.

We will reflect both externally on the impact that our work has had in the daily lives of people in South Africa as well as to what extent we have achieved an institution that reflects the values of the constitution internally.

We are looking forward to this process and are confident that it will strengthen us in our work.

However, and more immediately, all of us at the SAHRC will join with everyone in South Africa to celebrate this very special Freedom Day.

* Lawrence Mushwana is chairman of the SA Human Rights Commission.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent