Building up vs. trickling down: human rights in Southern Africa

Human rights are usually represented by an inflexible, highly technical international regime, claiming universality but mainly informed by elites. And yet, human rights are rooted in individual experiences located in particular places, times, contexts and cultures. Attempts to link these two worlds largely rely on the “trickle down” effect of treaties written primarily in colonial languages from the global North. This approach assumes that expertise is located in particular places and absent in others, that it is informed by legal education or political service rather than lived experience, and that it flows only in one direction. What happens if we reverse this flow? How might the approach to global human rights change if we shift from “trickling down” to “building up”?

"Do local activists in Botswana and South Africa understand human rights in ways that mirror or diverge from the international human rights regime?"

Instead of looking to the UN, my research asks: do local activists in Botswana and South Africa understand human rights in ways that mirror or diverge from the international human rights regime? As Nat Kendall-Taylor has argued, we need deeper and better “ways of understanding how people think about human rights issues” and, as Carla Sutherland and others have noted, we particularly lack information about these “ways of understanding” in African contexts. Botswana and South Africa are important cases to examine, as they share some cultural groups and languages but have very different histories and politics. To explore how these different influences affected how human rights are understood I focused on activist organizations that identify as human rights-based, as they have spent the most time thinking about and negotiating human rights in their local contexts. To gauge how human rights works on the ground, in each of five locally-based organizations, I conducted 5-10 interviews with personnel, which included open-ended questions, word association and photo elicitation. Discussed below are findings from two high profile human rights-based advocacy groups—the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) and SECTION27, named for the health and education rights section of the South African Constitution.

While the international regime positions human rights in laws and treaties, BONELA respondents barely mentioned state law, instead talking about human rights as inherent to “being human”—in other words, who you are rather than things you have. BONELA respondents saw human rights as timeless—something that had always existed and would always persist. Instead of looking to international conventions, respondents located the roots of human rights in Botswana’s cultural values, often translating the concept through the local principle of botho (“humanbeinghood”), in doing so refuting claims of human rights as a foreign concept. Rights were understood as embedded in community and enjoyed through experiences of belonging and inclusion. Enforcement was also described as people rather than institution centred. As one respondent put it, “I think we actually are—ourselves as individuals and communities—we actually are the human rights enforcers.”

Kristi H. Kenyon (All rights reserved)

Reflecting the historical and contemporary inequalities in South Africa, for SECTION27 respondents, rights equal equality.

In contrast, reflecting the South African political context, SECTION27 respondents understood rights primarily as “things you can claim against the state”, regularly referencing domestic courts, government, laws, and particularly the post-apartheid activist-inspired South African Constitution. However, these codifications were viewed as dynamic and participatory rather than static. SECTION27 respondents often spoke of the role of people within South Africa in giving meaning to rights. They saw the Constitution as a framework for engagement: “Like a children’s colouring book, it gives you an outline. Whether you fill in that outline with colour and meaning depends upon the extent to which you engage with the outline and demand that there’s some definition that is given to it.”

Respondents from SECTION27 saw rights as a conversation in which the population could and should participate. Reflecting an unequal society, these respondents understood rights violations as experiences of inequality, relative either to others or to past experience. SECTION27 staff also consistently located human rights in time, usually referring to a non-rights respective past, and an idealized rights-respective future. Unlike in the responses of BONELA participants, human rights were rarely explained through cultural concepts; rather, the call to legal legitimacy had powerful resonance in a diverse population, and historical legitimacy relating to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr has written that human rights remain meaningful in the global South. My research suggests that this meaning differs in important ways from the global human rights regime. While the international regime draws legitimacy from universalism, groups working at the local level ground their meaning in particular settings and practices. Unlike cultural relativism, which sees culture and context as barriers to human rights, these organizations use their context to interpret and explain human rights. In Botswana, legitimacy is tied to culture, and in this communal, consensual context BONELA interprets the enjoyment of human rights as belonging. In South Africa, the anti-apartheid struggle embeds meaning in domestic legal legitimacy as well as popular participation. Reflecting the historical and contemporary inequalities in South Africa, for SECTION27 respondents, rights equal equality.

If, as Stephen Hopgood has argued, we are witnessing the end times of “Human Rights” as a global regime, does averting our gaze from the global provide useful insights? Despite the different responses, these two case studies indicate the local resilience and adaptability of human rights and the people who advocate for them. In each of these cases, respondents interpret human rights through their contexts and tie the concept to a form of legitimacy that is particularly resonant in their country.

“Building up” to the global from these shared features could involve:

  • Using cultural terminology, historical events, and contextual concepts to interpret human rights, their meaning and legitimacy.

  • Engaging a greater variety of actors in all stages of the creation, promotion and enforcement of human rights treaties and initiatives (traditional leaders, religious leaders, community members).

  • Decentralizing and relocating international human rights institutions to include a greater number of meetings and headquarters outside of centres of power in the global North.

  • Emphasizing and valuing ongoing conversation and dialogue with community actors and deliberately creating structures within the UN system that facilitate their central, substantive and continued engagement.

These preliminary suggestions involve a significant shift from ingrained ideas about how human rights are achieved. They demand recognition of human rights as living and changing experiences rather than codified universal standards. Pursuing this uncomfortable, unpredictable process may be frustrating, but it also may reinvigorate the international human rights system from its vibrant but consistently overlooked grassroots.