Elections and Human Rights

While the definition of human rights seems simple and makes perfect sense to most of us, this unfortunately does not mean that all people everywhere have enjoyed equal rights through the ages. Human rights have always been, and continue to be, at the root of many struggles for national, group and personal freedom. As elections approach, we consider Human Rights and Elections in South Africa.

In 1948 the cause of human rights was greatly advanced when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was introduced at the United Nations. At the time, the National Party had just come to power in South Africa and our government refused to become a signatory to the UDHR. However, with the transition to democracy in South Africa, we obtained our own Bill of Rights. It forms Chapter Two of the Constitution of South Africa (1996). In this way, we can now say that human rights form the foundation of the highest law of the land, and infuse the democratic values at the heart of the Constitution.


It has come to be accepted that human rights fall into three broad categories. In some countries certain rights are considered to be fundamental while others are not. South Africa’s Bill of Rights elaborates 27 different rights, covering all three categories. Many people say that we have the most progressive Bill of Rights in the world.

• Civil and Political Rights
When people first began to codify human rights in law, these were the first rights to be recognised. They begin with the basic right to life, dignity, equality and privacy. They also include the fundamental freedoms that are so closely associated with democracy: freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion, belief and religion, and freedom of movement. Freedom from slavery, unfair imprisonment and torture, as well as the right to a fair trial are also important civil rights. Given the huge injustices of our past, the South African Bill of Rights is very attentive to the rights of people who have been arrested, detained or accused of a crime. Some people complain that criminals receive too much protection from the Bill of Rights at the expense of law-abiding citizens. However, a country cannot build a deep culture of human rights without applying these rights equally to everyone. Rather than diminishing the civil rights of criminals, the key to combating crime could lie in paying more attention to some of the other rights mentioned below, in particular socio-economic rights.

Political rights are those rights that apply most obviously to elections. The South African Bill of Rights states that “every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections” for national, provincial and local government. The Bill of Rights also mentions the right to vote, to form or join a political party, and to run for election.

• Social and Economic Rights
South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world to include socio-economic rights in its official Bill of Rights. Socio-economic rights tend to be rather controversial. Some people argue that they cannot be made “law” since it is impossible to guarantee that they will be applied equally to all citizens. Here we are talking about meeting the basic needs for human survival: food, water, shelter, health care and some form of social security (for example, pensions). The right to education forms part of this list too. Our Bill of Rights allows for most of these rights to be realised “progressively”, in other words not immediately but increasingly over time, according to what is affordable to the state. Particular urgency is given to the rights of children.

Other rights falling into the socio-economic category include the right to own property, the freedom to choose your own trade, occupation or profession and the right to fair labour practices in the workplace.

• Environmental and developmental rights
The field of human rights has continued to evolve. Over the last few decades, environmental activists have begun to campaign for the right to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental human right since this affects people’s basic condition of life. South Africa’s Bill of Rights includes environmental rights as well.

It also reflects the most recent trend in human rights law, namely the recognition of cultural and linguistic rights, and the freedom for communities to practise these rights. This is what is meant by developmental rights, as they provide an environment in which citizens and communities can realise their uniqueness and develop their potential without being forced to conform to certain patterns.


The South African Bill of Rights really is a document of hope. It provides a strong contrast to the unjust laws and practices of the apartheid years, and a written promise to all South Africans that ours is a country in which the rights of each person will receive equal protection. However, clearly there is a gap between the Bill of Rights and the reality of everyday life in South Africa where so many inequalities continue to prevail. The fact is that it is up to each one of us to claim and exercise our rights, which often takes work and organisation, in collaboration with other citizens. It is also important to accept that with rights come responsibilities, and that in some instances rights can even be limited.

It is often said that young people in particular are keen to claim rights, but tend to shy away from taking responsibility. Being irresponsible is a rather unfair stereotype of young people. The truth is that anyone will take responsibility for things they are really interested in or care deeply about. Young people can play just as important a role in building a culture of democracy and human rights in our country as anyone else. The big challenge is to move beyond individual interests and to connect with others in a way that turns private concerns into public issues, with the greater good of society in mind. These can be big, national issues (like fighting racism) or local issues (such as organising a recreational facility). Young people can put their own unique perspective, energy and talent to work, and thus take responsibility for expanding rights for others.

A focus on rights is not necessarily selfish. If we reflect on our fundamental rights and arrive at the point where we believe in them (even if we do not enjoy every one of them each day), then we gain a deep understanding of what it means to be human, and to be a South African. This is what the UDHR and the Bill of Rights are all about. But awareness on its own is not enough. Being human and being a citizen is also about taking action, and therefore taking responsibility. A genuine focus on rights cannot stop there!


Although human rights might seem basic and simple, they are not always straightforward, just like anything human. Human rights quite often conflict with each other, and in these cases both common sense and careful judgment need to be applied. The Bill of Rights allows for rights to be limited in certain instances. The most dramatic of these is during a state of emergency. However, on a day-to-day basis, other kinds of conflicts between rights constantly need to be resolved. A common example is the conflict between freedom of speech and the right to human dignity. The Constitution prohibits “hate speech” that might incite violence or harm to others. The Constitutional Court exists to help resolve difficult and high-profile cases, often rooted in conflicting human rights. However, courts do not provide the only solution. In everyday situations, ordinary citizens generally apply their own kinds of limitations to themselves, thus helping to ensure decent interactions and disagreements. These unspoken rules of civility or decency can also be based on human rights, as we together strive to make democracy meaningful in our daily lives.


While the section on political rights in our Bill of Rights is directly linked to elections, a number of other rights also pave the way for democratic citizen participation and free political activity. In this way, free and fair elections become an important expression of a democratic society based on human rights.

• Equality and dignity
In terms of the Bill of Rights, all South Africans are equal before the law and deserve to be treated with dignity. At election time, no voter can be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, or disability, for example. However, certain limitations apply, and these have proved to be controversial in some instances. Nobody under the age of 18 may vote. People who have been certified as mentally ill are excluded.
• Freedom of opinion, expression, association and assembly
These freedoms provide for an open, unthreatening environment in which elections can be held. Voters are free to hold their own political opinions and to express them openly. They are also free to connect and meet with others who share their opinions, as well as with those who don’t. Political parties may hold rallies, marches and other types of meetings. Media coverage of these activities and other election-related matters cannot be censored.
• The right of access to information
The Bill of Rights allows for citizens to obtain information from the state or from other persons if this information will assist them to exercise their other rights. Political parties have been asked to provide information about their private sources of funding on the grounds that secrecy over this matter could result in unequal access to political rights and damage our democracy. This has caused much controversy in the past.


In the South African Constitution, political rights are based on the principle of freedom of choice. In the Bill of Rights, Section 19 begins as follows: “Every citizen is free to make political choices.” But choice is something that confronts us every day, not only at election time. Learning to make wise choices and taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices is an important life skill. Very often, our choices have implications for other people, not just for us. Because there are so many different people with different opinions in the world, the business of making choices lies at the heart of democracy. Negotiating these differences and arriving at choices that satisfy at least the majority of people is what politics – in the broadest sense of the word – is all about.

The more democratic an environment, the more choices exist and the more freedom we have to make those choices. This also applies at home and at school. However, it is important to remember that democracy in any situation is not a “free for all.” It is, in fact, a very orderly system for making choices and for balancing these choices with those of others. Whether at home, at school or in society at large, the key is to understand that we do not make our choices in isolation. By being open to negotiate our choices with others we stand the best chance of “owning” the final decision and accepting it.


At election time, the Bill of Rights protects the right of citizens to make political choices in all kinds of ways.
• The right to vote
Most obviously, we have the right to present ourselves at the voting station on election day and vote for the party of our choice. Remember that only South African citizens aged 18 or over may vote. In order to exercise our right to vote, it is our responsibility to register. It is impossible to participate in an election without being a registered voter.
• The right to form a political party
In past elections in South Africa there have been 20 or more registered political parties. Some of these are large, established political formations. Others are newer and much smaller. Sometimes even old, recognised parties end up dividing and forming different parties. This might be a bit confusing to voters, but it forms part of the political freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. However, to participate in an election, a party needs to meet certain criteria and register formally with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
• The right to join a political party
It is possible to join a political party at any time, not only during elections. This is one way of becoming active as a citizen. During elections, parties depend on their members to recruit others and to campaign for their candidates. The Bill of Rights provides the freedom to do this, but parties also have codes of conduct to ensure that members do not abuse their rights. Citizens have the right to choose not to belong to a political party as well. Nobody can be forced to join a party or to participate in party activities.
• The right to stand for election
• According to the Bill of Rights, “every adult citizen has the right to stand for public office.” Generally candidates for an election are nominated by political parties and need to be members of those parties. However, in the case of local government elections, it is possible for independent candidates to run for office. Of course, once a candidate has been successfully elected, she or he has a responsibility to represent the interests of the voters and remain accountable to them.


Elections provide a golden opportunity for young people to exercise many of their basic human rights. Voting, forming a party and standing for election are only possible for citizens who have reached the age of 18, but all the other rights associated with elections are accessible to all young people, regardless of age. We need to practise what it means to be a citizen. Unless we exercise our rights, they will simply remain on paper and have little real meaning for us. Remember, exercise builds muscle. If we exercise our rights as citizens, we become stronger, more effective citizens. Democracy belongs to the people, and they can build it daily wherever they are: in families, schools, communities and in the country too.

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