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Photo by Kaylie-Ann Flannigan.
By Ahalia Persaud
"The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth."--from Section 9 of the South African Constitution.
JOHANNESBURG--The Constitution is the highest law in South Africa, says Commissioner Mohamed Ameermia,
Hence, the creation of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) among other "Section 9" institutions mandated by the 1996 Constitution to monitor the adherence to fundamental rights by the country's institutions, public and private, and expose abuses.
SAHRC investigates complaints, reports on the observance of human rights issues and hosts community dialogues. It also checks the executive powers to make sure they are in accordance to the bill of rights.
The commission is committed to transforming society, securing rights, and restoring rights to all. They do this with the seven commissioners that are in place to represent the institution, set priorities, ensure policies and programs, and allocate resources, says our host.
There are still problems of inequality in South Africa like gender issues, education, health, water and sanitation, housing, just to name a few, says Ameeria, but the country has made great strides.
And so has the Human Rights Commission.
The commission has created a one-of-its-kind Braille library, where the entire Constitution is written in Braille, and it has embarked on a Right to Food Campaign, which addresses the basic right to adequate food in a household. Also, in its head office, 10 minutes away from Constitutional Hill and Court that is on the highest point in the city, it has a newly exhibited space for artwork as a means of human rights expression.
The Human Rights Commission has the power to subpoena officials for public hearings, draft reports on human rights, talk to ministries, and present findings to Parliament, says Ameermia. They cannot follow up every situation because they are covering a lot of ground, but commission members try to address issues by interacting with local communities and stakeholders at the national and provincial levels, focusing on priorities and major areas.
The commission is led by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mr. Kayum Ahmed, and a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Mr. Peter Makanet, and it currently has a number of other full-time and part-time commissioners, including 150 staff members in the head office in Johannesburg and all nine provinces.
The SAHRC addresses issues ranging from housing and law enforcement to disability, as well as fundamental civil and political rights, but mostly focuses on the advancement of socio-economic rights, so all people can enjoy the benefits of democracy, says Ameermia.
Commissioners adopted a document called the Human Rights Matrix that tracks the various human rights obligations of South Africa at all levels. This tool is essential in creating reports for strategic focus areas and priorities, but there is so much reporting to be done, he adds.
"Learning is growing," says Ameermia. "We don't have all the answers. We are always learning."