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The role of civil society in human rights awareness

Civil society and its role in constitutional education was at the forefront of the first ever National Colloquium on Constitutional Awareness and Human Rights Education, held in Pretoria last week.

Mluleki Marongo, a researcher at SECTION27 and speaker at the colloquium, outlined some of the issues he faces in his work in the public healthcare sector.

“People might know that they have a right to healthcare, they might know about the right to protest, they might know about the right to go to school, but what happens when they go to a hospital and there is no medication?”

In Marongo’s own life, he said that he first saw a Constitution as a law student, at age 21. His mother was over 50 years old when she first saw one, and had her son not brought a copy of one home, she may never have had access.

The lack of access, said Marongo, is the greatest threat to our democracy. If we do not ensure that the current generation – of upcoming professionals and government officials – understands and lives the principles of the Constitution, we will not have a constitutional democracy to celebrate in another 20 years time.

A survey on constitutional rights awareness conducted by the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) in 2011, found that only 46% of those targeted had heard of the existence of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Only 10% had read the Constitution, or had it read to them. The survey found that the low levels of awareness of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Human Rights legislation and the Chapter 9 institutions were strongly linked to education levels, low socio-economic status and lack of access to information. The findings of the survey demonstrated the need for interventions focused on improving citizens’ awareness the rights that make a practical difference to their lives.

 

Civil society organisations, unlike the government, may be more successful in promoting human rights awareness, because of their ability to tap into those most affected by the lack of access. However, John Jeffrey, the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, recognised that a lack of coordination, communication and collaboration between the State and civil society organisations must be addressed.

 
The colloquium had a series of breakaway workshops, looking at partnerships between government and civil society organisations, a framework for educational programmes, training materials and the monitoring of impact. It’s aim, above all else, was to ensure that the importance of constitutional education and awareness is recognised by all the relevant stakeholders and is improved among South Africans.

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