Nelson Mandela Foundation

The 21 March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre is known as an event that brought into existence the international system of human rights that we have today. The 1960s were characterised by a lack of oversight mechanisms to hold institutions and governments accountable – states were not bound by international human rights obligations. I often cannot believe that it cost the lives of 69 people who were peacefully protesting for the world to stand up. Stephen Wheatley argues that without these killings, there may not be an international system of human rights. Everything changed following the world’s moral outrage at the killings.

Events and ruptures like the one that happened over 64 years ago serve as reminders of the moral decay and numbness we have normalised in our societies today. I remember my first time interacting and battling with our history as a country, and as a politics major I always asked myself why the price was always set so high. Freedom, our constitution and ideas of liberation that we are still grappling with today came at a great loss, loss of life, loss of hope, and intergenerational traumas that so many still carry today. The Constitution and these written human rights are a treasure paid for in literal tears, a symphony woven from sacrifices made by many of our parents, a tapestry woven from threads of anguish. Did it take so much for people to think that these systems of oppression and discrimination must stop?

I see the same happening with different countries and regions that are currently fighting for their right to exist. It is happening in Gaza, where thousands and thousands of people are losing their lives. It is happening in Congo, where a man felt the need to set himself alight to get the attention of the media.

We continue to boast about the constitution, viewed as a masterpiece of human rights all over the world , but we know that it fails to hold space for suffering, fails to serve its purpose as a moral campus and a moral contract. It continues to fail in addressing our tolerance for violence. Year after year we fail to call out the tragedy that manifest itself differently, that finds a new face every two years. The tragedy of Sharpville where 69 lives where lost. From an early age we are taught that violence in itself is evil, morally unjustifiable by what standard can we equate violence of oppressed and suppressed groups to the violence of the oppressor. Violence aimed at the recovery of human dignity and at equality cannot be judged by the same yardstick as violence aimed at maintenance of discrimination and oppression.

The very idea of morality has failed in being consistent in its usage and application, in its meaning and depends on people, us with our ever-changing ideologies that have become more and more flexible and ever-changing. The overarching definition that is easy to understand is the interrogation and questioning of what is wrong and what is right; it is a social system of regulation, an element that is anchored on true values. This year the world at large has been confronted with an ethical elasticity, morality malleability which has led to an alarming tolerance for unjust actions and the infringement of the human rights of many. As moral boundaries continue to be blurred, institutions and individuals are more willing to justify and rationalise behaviours that would have once been universally chastised and denounced. The erosion of moral absolutes has led to the subjectivity of right and wrong; they are no longer objective truths. This has led to injustices and morality becoming a trope, justified under situational ethics, compromising integrity and accountability. It is important to reevaluate our moral compass and reaffirm our commitment to ethical principles that uphold justice and the ideals that underpin our Constitution.