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21 March 2021

Fellow South Africans,

We are commemorating Human Rights Day almost exactly a year since the coronavirus pandemic was declared a national disaster in our country and we prepared for a nationwide lockdown to contain its spread.

Over the course of the past year, our nation, like many others across the world, has endured great hardships.

We have lost mothers, fathers, siblings, colleagues and friends to this deadly disease. It has taken a heavy toll on our economy and on our people’s livelihoods.

It has affected every aspect of our lives as South Africans.

We have had to give up basic human interactions that we once took for granted, like greeting each other with a handshake or a warm hug.

We have had to sacrifice things that are important to us, like meeting and socialising, travelling freely, attending funerals of our loved ones and being at cultural gatherings and attending religious services.

But throughout, there has been an understanding that these restrictions were, and remain, necessary for the health and safety of us all.

It has almost become difficult to remember how life was in our country just a year ago.

It was a life without masks, a life without social distancing and without restrictions on our daily lives. 

And yet over the passage of time, we have shown our resilience as a people. 

We have shown our determination  to defeat a pandemic that is still very much with us.

We have done so with great courage and resolve.

Our unity as a nation has been our greatest strength.

This unity is born of an understanding that the pandemic is a threat to us all.

The virus has struck down rich and poor, young and old, male and female, black and white, city dweller and those who live in our rural areas.

Sixty-one years ago our brave forebears took up the defence of the rights of our people, in the face of a harsh, cruel and unjust system that was exploitive and oppressive.

The heroes who protested at Sharpeville on the 21st of March 1960 took up the cause of liberty, freedom and human rights.

They did so not for themselves alone, but for us all. That's why they're our heroes and heroines.  

In the same way, the struggles we wage today are not for our cause alone.

They are also for the men, women and children of tomorrow, so that they too may live in security, comfort, peace and freedom.

In reflecting on the events at Sharpeville, we appreciate how far we have come from being a society that cares only for a few at the expense of the majority. 

Over the past year, government, working in partnership with social partners and civil society, has given effect to the principle that human rights are not negotiable.

We have strived to meet our many obligations under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that is the cornerstone of our democracy. 

Through the provision of care to the sick and social support to the vulnerable, we have worked together to give effect to the most important rights of our people – the right to life, to health and to dignity.

The protestors at Sharpeville wanted to see an end to the pass system that deprived them of their basic human right to work, to earn a living and to provide for their families.

It was a struggle for social and economic rights.

In recognition of the severe impact of the pandemic on people’s livelihoods, we have implemented social and income support measures to support struggling households, workers and businesses. 

And in this, the next phase of our response to the pandemic, we are working to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine is available to every person in our country.

We have been able to weather the coronavirus storm in large part because of the strong culture of human rights in our country.

Human rights that were hard-won by the heroes and heroines of Sharpeville and the countless heroes and heroines of our struggle for liberation broadly.

They were firm in their conviction that freedom for some is freedom for none; and that nobody must be left behind.

 It was at Sharpeville that President Nelson Mandela signed our democratic Constitution into law 25 years ago.

The Constitution is a shade and a shelter for all.

As we said at the time, the constitution is one law for one nation.

It commits not just government but every one of us to the values that were disregarded in the past – of human rights, of fair and decent treatment, of tolerance of difference, and of appreciation of our common basic humanity. 

We are now in the phase of reconstruction and recovery.

We are working to build a new economy that promises equal opportunity for all.

In doing so, let us remember that this is a struggle for all of us far greater than ourselves.

It is not a fight not for our own piece of bread, for our own job to be saved, or for our own health and safety.

It is a fight to preserve our common humanity.

And it means that we must all work together, whether as government, labour, business or communities.

We must rebuild a society that is far better than the one that came before it.

We must become a society that is free from poverty, hunger and deprivation.

We must become a society where women and children are free from violence, and where their rights are protected.

We must become a society where young people are able to realise their full potential – where they are not doomed to lives of despair and poverty because they cannot afford an education or because there are no jobs for them.

We must be a society of equal opportunity for all, regardless of one’s race, sex, sexual orientation or whether one is able bodied or a person with disabilities.

We must be a society where quality health care, education and basic services are provided to our people regardless of whether they live in a village in a town or a city.

We must be a society where the land is owned not by a few, but where all have access to land for development, for progress and for self-upliftment.

Above all, we must be a society that recognises the dignity of every individual, and the role of every man, woman and child in building a better future. 

This is the promise of our Constitution.

And as we work to rebuild our economy and our society, we must strive to make this promise a reality in the lives of our people. 

Advancing human rights is the responsibility of us all.

Though we may have our differences on a number of issues, we have far more in common.

We share a common goal: to defeat the pandemic.

We have a common vision: of a better, more inclusive society.

Above all, we have a common cause: that of a South Africa of equality, prosperity, freedom and human rights for all.

To all South Africans, to all those who call this great beautiful country their home, I wish you a healthy, happy and peaceful Human Rights Day.

I thank you.

President Cyril RAMAPHOSA