20 years of democracy: South Africa’s activists demand action

By Clare Fermont, Amnesty’s Regional Content Manager in Johannesburg

I’ve been asking grassroots activists what they think of South Africa’s first 20 years of democracy. These are the women and men at the sharp end of human rights. They understand the problems. They know what needs to be done. Today we introduce you to 20 of these activists in this compelling slideshow. Their voices demand to be heard.

Amid the clamour of South Africa’s democracy celebrations, the voices of grassroots human rights activists have been largely unheard. Yet these are the very people who understand best the successes and failures of the post-apartheid era.

Every day, they work with some of the tens of millions of people whose lives are blighted by poverty, inequality and violence in South Africa and whose experiences are rarely included in the country’s story of democracy.

Some of the activists I’ve met are combating violence against women and children. Some are trying to stop forced evictions of shack-dwellers. Some are defending free speech or workers’ rights. Some are battling against discrimination. Some are campaigning for proper healthcare for pregnant women and people living with HIV/AIDS. Many, including a committed core of Amnesty members and supporters in South Africa, are defending an array of human rights as and when they come under fire.

I want the government to read the Constitution and laws carefully.

Ndabo Mumela, housing rights activist

I’ve met these activists in towns and remote rural areas, in community halls and courtrooms, on protests and at human rights workshops, in buildings and in shacks, in workplaces and universities.

I’ve asked them what inspired them to become activists, what they think is the greatest improvement in human rights since 1994, and what their main concern is today. I’ve also asked them what they want the government to do to improve human rights in South Africa.

With all the rhetoric surrounding the anniversary celebrations and the recent elections, it has been refreshing to hear what activists have to say. It has also been instructive to hear what they think the government should do, or not do, after 20 years of democracy.

Their voices reflect the capacity and passion to carry forwards South Africa’s challenging human rights journey. The new government should listen to them.