In the shoes of SA Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Nissen
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Cape Town - As a little boy, South African Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Nissen worked for R1.20 per week at a local shop while growing up in Bellville South and later the family moved to Bishop Lavis where he sold wood for R4 per week to support his family.
It was here where Nissen’s taste of hardship began.
Nissen knew about the fight to survive, dignity and respect etched in his veins.
It has been these traits which has moulded Nissen into the man he is today.
He was born Andrew Chris Stoffel Nissen but became a household name as “Chris Nissen”.
Dressed simply in a shirt and pants, he sits on the grass among the homeless asking them how they had come to be on the streets and where they were from.
“We need to understand, homeless, displaced are not only a South African problem, it is worldwide,” he said.
“Every major city has their fair share of displaced people.
“But a number of cities in the world are dealing with them in a sustainable and in a developmental way. Many people are displaced for a number of reasons and mental health challenges are one of them.
“We have people who have been abused, both sexually and physically.
“There are some who have violated their parole and are using the streets for opportunity for crime.
“We must not call them vagrants, they are human beings that have been displaced for a number of reasons whether its wealth, health or economic or social.”
Nissen detailed how his life as a young boy had shaped him to becoming an ordained Minister of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of South Africa in 1981 and he served in congregations as far as Limpopo Province to the Eastern and Western Cape.
He is fluent in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
“We were nine siblings, three had already left the house so I was kind of the eldest, I worked in a shop for R1.20 per week,” he said.
“That was in Bellville South. Then when I to high school, I was able to take the bus due to the school times, I used to collect wood and sold it.
“I made R4 per week, this is the location where the airport is today.”
In 1976, during the apartheid uprising, Nissen found himself in matric and was expelled.
But he was more determined than ever and did theological studies and later obtained a Bachelor of Arts, Honours Degree from the University of Cape Town in 1988 despite not having his matric.
He was also imprisoned during the Struggle era.
“I went to the seminary, school of theology and I did very well. There was a professor of humanities, he was the guest speaker at our graduation and he asked why I didn’t do the degree course and I said no I do not have my matric. He said okay and let’s see what we can do.
“I was one of the first offered to be part of the programme at UCT, where a space was created for the youth of 1976, who could not complete their matric.
“They gave us a programme and after I did a BA Honours then I left for Graaf-Reinet and I came back.
“I wrote the last chapter of my thesis in Pollsmoor, that was the disintegration of the Khoisan Society and of the coloured community in 1989.”
Nissen worked on the Western Province Council of Churches during the 1980s and was also appointed a member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature, as Deputy Speaker.
Now in 2020 and 2021, Nissen said they had faced a great giant, the Covid-19 virus and he contracted it in January this year.
He told of how 550 human rights monitors were tasked during lockdown to oversee that violations did not take place.
“If it was not for the monitors, it could have been a large violation of human rights.”
Part of his role as commissioner is to observe correctional facilities across the country, to improve conditions.
Here, he got to meet children as young as eight who faced murder charges.
“Some of the conditions were so inhumane and we had to see that this did not infringe on their dignity.”
When asked what was a case he would never forget while being a commissioner, he said it was the death of a young man who had taken his own life due to discrimination at work.
“A woman in Benoni called me, her 21-year-old son had committed suicide,” he said. “This was apparently due to discrimination in the workplace. She had a voice note that her son had sent her. What do you say to a mother, you just cry with her.”