On the weekend of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, a group of prominent South Africans – among them eminent anti-apartheid activists, politicians, artists, lawyers and academics – united to urge the UK Government to reconsider plans to repeal its Human Rights Act in the light of their own national experience.
An open letter published in the Observer (20 July) reads: “Dividing people, setting their rights and freedoms apart on the basis of their passport or race, stripping them of their human rights, led to the worst abuses of the twentieth century. It led to Apartheid. And it can only lead to further injustice and dispossession in the future.”
Among the signatories are Archbishop Njongo Ndungane, former Archbishop of Cape Town who was imprisoned on Robben Island; Denis Goldberg, who was tried alongside Mandela and sentenced in 1964 to four terms of life imprisonment; activist and film director Zackie Achmat; writer and painter Breyten Breytenbach, who was imprisoned during the apartheid regime; feminist human rights activist and former African National Congress MP Pregs Govender; Mandla Langa, poet, short story writer, novelist and Vice-President of PEN South Africa; Rachel Holmes, author of three major biographies, activist and Writer at Liberty; and Sir Bob Hepple QC, academic and barrister who was indicted with Mandela in 1963, and was a banned person in South Africa for 27 years after managing to flee to the UK.
Denis Goldberg, who was number three accused at the Rivonia trial, said: “During the struggle against apartheid for human rights, Britain hosted one of the ANC’s main international offices. The people of Britain through the anti-apartheid movement (AAM) gave us magnificent support because of their belief that human rights must be defended. It would be a sad day indeed to see Britain weakening its human rights legislation fought for over many generations and enacted by various governments. My rights were defended when I was released from 22 years in prison in South Africa, and the British government allowed me to join my family who had lived in exile in Britain during all those years. Please do not weaken the legislation protecting our rights.”
Archbishop Njongo Ndungane said: “Human rights are rights which a human being possesses by virtue of being a person, nothing else being taken into account. They are universal, inalienable and cannot be rationed according to nationality, skin colour, religion or wealth. In my country, human rights are enshrined into our constitution in order to ensure peace, freedom and a stable future for our citizens – and history shows that terrible things can happen when their universality is not enshrined explicitly into law. The UK’s commitment to the international human rights framework has long made it a beacon for those striving for freedom elsewhere. I and many others in South Africa hold a deep appreciation of the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, under which violations were brought to the court which had the effect of changing the UK’s domestic law to avoid such infringements in future. I urge the Government not to extinguish that beacon with these misguided plans.”