Reflecting on Progress and Paving the Way Forward: Human Rights Day Insights from Esteemed PsySSA Leaders

Prof Saths Cooper

PsySSA Past President

“Three Decades of Respect for and Promotion of Human Rights” is South Africa’s (SA) theme for our Human Rights Day on 21 March, which bore witness to the Sharpeville massacre on this day in 1960.

“All Human Beings Are Born Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights” is the United Nations’ 74th anniversary slogan for International Human Rights Day on 10 December, celebrated in recognition of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on that day in 1948. The UN General Assembly crafted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as a result of the pass laws and the Sharpeville Massacre, with this day being recognised as the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1969!

PsySSA’s Constitution proclaims that “We acknowledge psychology’s historical complicity in supporting and perpetuating colonialism and the apartheid system” and that we are committed to:
“Transforming and redressing the silences in South African psychology to serve the needs and interests of all South Africa’s people;” and
“Actively striving for social justice, opposing policies that deny individuals or groups access to the material and psychological conditions necessary for optimal human development, and protesting any violations of basic human rights”.

PsySSA members have, since our inauguration in January 1994, been informed by the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid trauma, and the unfinished attempts to correct these since the advent of democracy. The scars left by the infamy and profound psychological impacts of the “Pass Laws” in our history reverberate through generations, impacting communities, groups, families and individuals in ways that society has not fully come to grips with.

SA’s exceptionalism, blinding partisanship and twisting of language and narrative to suit narrow sociopolitical ends are the heritage of our colonial and apartheid past. Yet, here we are, almost 30 years after hard-won democracy, having to constantly disabuse ourselves of outdated bias and prejudice that should have no place in any vibrant society, stripping individuals of their dignity, autonomy, and sense of belonging, festering otherness. Brutal past and poorly-managed current policies have inflicted deep wounds on the psyche, perpetuating cycles of fear, anger, and despair. For many, the trauma of our terrible past persists in the form of complex PTSD, ongoing psychic emergency, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, on a persistent bed of poverty all around us. Poverty of both income and leadership.

Intergenerational transmission of these sequelae – without any mediation – ensures their perpetuation, continuing to shape the behaviour of most of our children, who are socialised by suffering. Our children – our future – bear the mantle of psychological scars embedded by told and untold stories, widening the Them vs Us divide across society, made worse by the silly season of hundreds of political parties promising us everything, while effectively seeking it for themselves.

As psychologists, we recognise the importance of addressing all of these issues in the small and larger ways that we can, with authenticity and willingness to learn and better our skill sets in the process of reconciling and tolerating differences, in community healing and educational initiatives, thus playing vital roles in fostering healing and resilience. By confronting the past with courage and compassion, we can create a future where human rights are upheld, and psychological health and wellbeing are grounded for all to ensure that our children may fully embrace our common humanity.

Prof Brendon Barnes

PsySSA Chair: Climate, Environment and Psychology Division

PSYSSA commemorates Human Rights Day on 21 March 2024.
In the 30th year of our democracy, Human Rights Day allows us to reflect on past atrocities, reflect on current human rights struggles and importantly, imagine a better world for all. Human rights declarations offer a set of universal ideas and values that speak to the rights of all people regardless of their race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, political views, and socioeconomic status. In South Africa, human rights are enshrined in the constitution (through the Bill of Rights) and underpin the core values of freedom, dignity, and equality. On Human Rights Day, we commemorate those who valiantly fought for our freedoms and human rights that are central to our democracy. We remember those who lost their lives during the Sharpeville massacre and other liberatory struggles leading to our democracy. We also acknowledge those who played a role in the formation of PsySSA and who continue to promote a holistic rights-based approach to mental health and psychological well-being.

However, the majority of South Africans continue to live in unsafe environments and are exposed to inferior quality education, elevated unemployment levels, food insecurity, violence, crime and inadequate healthcare, to name a few. We are in the grip of a service delivery crisis where water access, loadshedding and infrastructure collapse threaten to undermine human rights in profound ways. We also see the continuing attack on the rights of marginalised groups through epistemic and political violence. We stand with groups fighting for human rights. We also stand in solidarity with those fighting for human rights around the world in a time of increased insecurity, military action, and political instability. As we look forward, we also look to galvanise the rights of marginalised people and their knowledge systems, promote meaningful participation in our democracy, and develop the rights of the natural world alongside human rights in the hope of a more just planetary future.

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