Thursday, 13 June 2013

Is a commitment to human rights sufficient for an emancipatory praxis?

by Owona Madlingozi

Seyla Benhabib (Hoover, 2013: 3) “defends human rights as universal moral norms…which…define the equal concern and recognition due to every individual in that process of communicative reasoning”. This essay aims to analyse human rights, the purpose they serve and how they have been used in modern society. It aims to look at practical situations and see how effectively human rights have been used in society and to what extent they have complemented emancipation. It serves to show that human rights are not sufficient for an emancipatory theoretical praxis. In describing emancipation, we find that it needs to be a part of popular politics, an essentially human based experience. A commitment to human rights cannot be sufficient if it does not ensure that those very rights can completely be realised. Without the commitment to actual individual realisation, human rights can never be sufficient for an emancipatory praxis.

Human Rights

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. They form a fundamental part of democratic society, intent on building previously broken societies and working towards a true realisation of freedom and equality. As is true for most nations, human rights as a socio-political concept arise out of a period of oppression or severe injustice where those rights we have come to know as human rights were withheld from certain members of society. Such is the case for South Africa. South Africa came out of the grasps of apartheid in the early 1990s, scarred by the injustices of the past – both political and social – with the intentions of correcting past mistakes and working together to build a democratic society with human rights as the core feature of this new society, to be enjoyed by all.

There is a concern that “human rights are a false ideological universality” (Hoover, 2013:1) that truly only exists to legitimise a Western concept of politics consisting of “military interventions and neo-colonialism”. The question that arises out of this concern then is whether we need human rights if they do not serve a legitimate societal best interest. Obviously, and from our sociologically incited understanding of the world, we cannot imagine a nation in which there were no legal rules and standards or atleast some sort of moral code that people had to live by – respecting each other’s sovereignty. Our understanding is that such a society, void of the rules that keep us in check, is not one that could function effectively and therefore we defend human rights; they are our universal moral code without which society would ‘crumble’.  

Hoover (2013:2) points out that ‘human rights are social constructions and therefore only express the political order in which they have been created, and if this is so then there can be no fundamental change to the social order’. This is problematic because if we are trying to develop society and work towards one that is based on justice and equality for all (as an example) then we need constant development, constant shifts and changes that alter social norms until we reach a stage that final and complete according to our own needs. We need to assume a way of governance that sees “equality … not as a future goal but as a practice in the present” (Neocosmos, 2011).

Democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realisation of human rights. Neocosmos (2011: 361) states that there “is the assumption that democracy…must be accompanied by a culture of rights”. This culture of rights is supposed to be the way in which the state can move away from violence as being a way in which differences are resolved, and as a move towards multicultural tolerance in the state. Part of this culture of rights is that human rights have to be enforced. Both the state and individuals can infringe on other peoples’ rights and as such, human rights need to be protected against all other citizens as well as against the state. The tool that was created in South Africa, in order to protect these rights, is the Constitution. It sets out the laws of a nation, which set out how that nation will be organised. This happens by deciding the powers and authorities of government as well as stating the basic law-making and structural principles of society.

The South African experience

Jacques Rancière’s claim that “politics begins exactly when those who cannot do something show that in fact they can” (Rancière, 2003: 202) illustrates a reversal of the process of exclusion. The problem comes when a political process, which serves to convince these people that they could not have had any impact on their situation, is used to define a reversal. That even if they had acted, nothing would have changed and as such, they should return to their place in society and let those who are capable take charge of the field of politics (Neocosmos, 2011: 363). Through this kind of dialogue “the unrecognised suffering of human beings is made invisible and the possibilities of eliminating such suffering are limited to those authorised within the given order, which enables the very harms in need of redress” (Hoover, 2013: 8). To say that peoples’ actions could have had no impact on the outcome implies that, firstly, they did not see the wrong in the situation and/or are incapable of fighting for themselves; and secondly that they are an insignificant part of society – incapable of shifting the political sphere in any way.
After the adoption of the Constitution in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created with the aim of dealing with what had happened during apartheid and for people to be able to deal with it in a way that would have been morally acceptable. “The TRC process would serve to promote a human rights culture” (Neocosmos, 2011: 369) which would then inspire the removal of violence within and among society and rather have violence monopolised by the state. Because of this, violence comes to be seen as being in opposition to democracy. The TRC worked in such a way that ‘anyone who had been a victim of violence, or considered themselves to be a victim, could come forward’ ( It was meant to be a platform for people to tell their stories, and hopefully find peace in learning the truth about how, for example, their loved ones had passed, and what had happened to them. It granted closure to those who had never heard from their loved ones since apartheid and had either assumed death or remained hopeful that they would one-day return. This is all good and well but the problem with this is that “the presumption that one has a responsibility to define and protect the rights of others is built on a separation that not only assumes but also institutionally ensures that human rights “victims” cannot help themselves” (Hoover, 2013 :8).

The TRC did indeed provide a platform but it’s “core task…was to speak about or for victims” (Madlingozi, 2010: 210), and so the consequence of this was that the people had first to agree to their victimhood. Victims were created and acquired this identity (Neocosmos, 2011: 384) and as one Khulumani member said: “they just want us to be victims…so they can help us” (Madlingozi, 2010: 213). This victimisation then restricts our ability to show the route South African nationalism took “from an emancipatory conception founded on political agency to … one based on victimhood” (Neocosmos, 2011: 385). When people’s identity is restricted to a category such as ‘victim’, then their struggle, their agency is restricted to one description of only suffering – their efforts are no longer seen as heroic or revolutionary and they are looked upon with shame. There was a reparation and rehabilitation committee, which was charged with restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation. This then suggests that these people had lost their dignity in the struggle, and had to be repaired and made new, whole, people who could then function within society - but only once they had been rehabilitated.


“There can be no conception of emancipation which does not break fundamentally with the state’s way of conceiving and engaging in politics” (Neocosmos, 2011). When we talk about emancipation and emancipatory practices, we often find ourselves discussing the situations of various, previously unequal and oppressed nations. Out of this oppression arises a democratic nation premised on the notion of doing that which is in the best interests of all members of society. It is in these discussions that we uncover how human rights come to be understood by people at the grassroots level, and what steps are taken in order to ensure that all people have a full understanding of their rights and how these may be realised. In African nations, the most commonly encountered problem it seems has been the manner in which knowledge is imparted.

Neocosmos (2011) states that: “the point must be to think popular politics as human emancipation”. This focuses on the individuals, the members of society as people and not as subjects of politics – the population. It takes seriously the significance of individual autonomy in emancipatory politics. When we leave the state as the ultimate legitimator then we, firstly, leave out all people outside of the state – everyone who is not a citizen; and then we also exclude those who do not have an accurate conception of what the state is. “The politics of human rights is ultimately a form of state politics … (but) the state cannot emancipate anyone” (Neocosmos, 2011). Emancipation in the mind of the individual does not occur at the moment that one is declared to no longer be bound by the rules of the past – oppressive as they were. There needs to be a mental break from the bondage of an oppressed mind-set – a break from the so-called ‘slave mentality’. “A politics of emancipation should be using categories such as justice, equality and freedom in which an idea of equality is constructed”. We cannot set a definite idea of what emancipation is without taking into account the unique situation, and addressing this idea in light of its specific circumstances.

Civic education

Civic education, otherwise known as citizen or democracy education, is the study of government with particular focus on the role of citizens. It is the study of citizenship – its rights and duties. Civic education in a democracy is education in self-government. Civic education has the potential to be the driving force in human rights education in areas where citizens may have not had access to such knowledge before. The problem is in how the people doing the civic education assumed their position. The providers of civic education on human rights assume that they have the superior knowledge concerning those that they are advising and see themselves as torchbearers for the disadvantaged. There is this idea that there are those who are advantaged and those who are disadvantage and it is ‘the former that help the latter to sustain themselves’ (Englund, 2006: 71). There exists also, the notion that illiteracy is at such a level that ‘the people do not possess the necessary intellectual…capacity needed to articulate such a subject as human rights’ (Englund, 2006: 730. This idea is obviously problematic as it makes it seem as though ‘the masses’ are incapable of formulating opinion and understanding the need for basic rights such as adequate housing, education, security and safety. These providers usually come in the forms of NGOs and other social movements, they aim to promote and study human rights awareness where they are situated, but often end up failing in their attempts to realise the needs of the people.

The Malawi experience

Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland, gained full independence in 1964. After the successful conduct of the elections, questions arose as to how information about the democratic reforms launched by the new government would reach Malawians at large (Englund, 2006: 73) and, further, how they would come to be understood. One of the issues that came to the forefront when trying to answer this question was that of illiteracy. “In countries where illiteracy is common…human rights advocates must devise methods to get their message across… (and) these messages are deployed in civic education” (Englund, 2006: 70).

The NGOs involved in promoting and studying human rights awareness in this region were observed to be governed with resources that in many cases exceeded those of government departments. Denmark and other European countries funded them so that they could undertake their activities smoothly (Englund, 2006:75). NICE (national initiative for civic education) was one such project, with Malawi being the ‘official’ owner where in fact “it was managed by the German agency for technical cooperation (GTZ)” (Englund, 2006: 75). NICE held frequent workshops in the region

In Malawi, NICE volunteers were trained and often attended workshops to teach them how to engage with the locals in a suitable manner. These workshops were attended by academics from abroad discussing things such as the specific training and skills needed in NICE’s work.   The participation of the locals in NICE often had underlying tones of attaining status and privilege. “The mere belonging to NICE distinguished them (the volunteers) from the rest of the country’s poor” (Englund, 2006: 81). A lot of the volunteers for NICE were members of the very societies that they were now working in. The ‘distinctions were achieved at the workshops, not through a discussion of the messages that civic education spread’ (Englund, 2006: 87). It makes sense that the distinction occurred at the workshops, as the people who were informing the volunteers as to how to deal with the locals had no first-hand knowledge or experience in interacting with them. Because of this the information, the interaction between the locals and the volunteers may have appeared to be distant and insincere to the locals. This would be so because the understanding of the people does not come from experience but from a theoretical or academic viewpoint, that has no link to the lived reality.

In the case of Malawi, the NGOs had resources that far outweighed those of the government, were funded by European countries and often did not realise that their presence resulted in the belittling of the people that they were meant to help. They made themselves the exclusive community of human rights experts, and as a result they failed in realising the needs of the people they were there to assist and, as Englund (2006: 76) points out: “it was the grassroots that were placed below NICE”. The problem with outsiders entering a space and asserting themselves as the experts is that those very experts do not realise, or do not acknowledge, the agency of the people that they are there to help. They place themselves in an authoritative position and fail to communicate and establish any form of relations with the people at the grassroots level. Another way in which the volunteers came to distinguish themselves from the social setting they had come from was by how “their previous knowledge about their social world … was made into ‘skills’ and codified into exotic English concepts” (Englund, 2006: 88). There was the use of the Chichewa word “kuwunikira”, which means “to enlighten” and what this suggests is that the volunteers’ newly discovered perspective on their world was to be used to shed light on the misconstrued ideas that their peers had. The act of taking that which is natural to a person and a group of persons, and convincing one that it is lacking in some way, and then combine foreign ideas with the natural ones and send that back as the best possible alternative is both presumptuous and wrong. What this goes to show is that there is no significant attempt in understanding the locals and their way of life, and from that understanding explaining new concepts, so that you are not removing or substituting their ideas but simply adding to that what you know.

These different organisations and social movements claim to be human pioneers, enablers of social change and development and enforcers of policies aimed at helping people realise their human rights but their actions do not reflect this.  The workshops conducted by these organisations suggest problems inherent within the society by the implication that the desired form of life is different to that which they currently have. There was the enhancement of self-esteem by reference to ‘neat and clean appearances’ which I can only assume meant that their traditional attire was not such, or simply that what the volunteers and officers looked like was to be more desired. The ideas conveyed in the workshops set the professionals apart from those considered to be in need of civic education. “The fascination with appearance, with personal cleanliness…gave the impression that the grassroots had particular problems with hygiene” (Englund, 2009: 90). The use of language in these workshops also causes a division between the organisation representatives and the locals. There was this underlying presumption of the supremacy of English. The language was used in such a way that it made Chichewa (the dominant language in the region) seem as though it did not have the words necessary to convey messages such as ‘conflict resolution’ – which it could. As Englund (2006: 91) points out, they could have used the word ‘kukambirana’ (discussing), but because they did not it made it seems as though conflict resolution was so technical a procedure that only specially trained people could do it. 

The South African and Malawian examples serve to show how, even when done in good faith, the way in which human rights knowledge is circulated is that which can cause the most problems. When making moves towards educating citizens, who may have been deprived of basic rights in the past, great care needs to be taken in not belittling them and assuming an authoritative role as that does not develop the individual. As stated at the beginning, human rights, with regards to emancipation, need to be an individual, personal experience. They need have great regard for the personal experience. This essay has shown how human rights, when improperly distributed, can hurt the people more than they help. Human rights need to be more than simply words on paper. They need to be fully realisable. In addition, if people are made to feel beneath others then they do not have a full realisation of emancipation. Freedom is more than the law it is a lived reality. Human rights need not only seem emancipatory, they actually have to be emancipatory. When this is true, they will be sufficient for an emancipatory praxis.

Reference List

Englund, H. 2006. Prisoners of Freedom: human rights and the African poor. University of California Press: California.
Hoover, J. 2013. Towards a Politics for Human Rights: Ambiguous Humanity and Democratizing Rights. Department of International Politics, City University London.
Madlingozi, T. 2010 “Transitional Justice Entrepreneurs and the production of victims”, Journal of Human Rights Practice Vol. 2 No.2. pp 208 – 228.
Neocosmos, M. 2011. “Transition, human rights and violence: re-thinking a liberal political relationship in the African neo-colony”, A Journal for and About Social Movements, 3, 2: pp. 359-399.
Neocosmos, M. 2011. Reflections on Human Rights Discourse and Emancipation in Africa in the Twenty-first Century (online) Available: Accessed: 24 May 2013.
Ranciere, J. 2003. “Politics and Aesthetics”, Interview with Peter Hallward, Angelaki Vol. 8. No 2.
Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) (online) Available: Accessed 24 May 2013.