Never-ending fight for human rights

When is the battle for human rights ever going to end? You might think that in South Africa the organisations which laboured long for the days of freedom could now pause to draw breath.

But for bodies, such as the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which played an honourable part as a law centre in the human rights struggle from its Johannesburg headquarters, in some ways the fight is just beginning.

While the previous government's policy was based on a denial of human rights, the LRC points out that the new constitution enshrines human rights, through a bill of rights.

Now the centre says human rights work has to ensure that these are realised. And while it has good relations with the authorities (its founder Arthur Chaskalson is the president of the new Constitutional Court), as a centre it is not going to lose its independent and critical stance.

In fact the LRC sees constitutional litigation flowing "thick and fast". The scope for rights work appears enormous, as the "equality clause" in the constitution will be a key instrument in overcoming the legacy of apartheid.

It points out that unless the rights become real they will stay "paper rights" and the courts will be where they are put to the test. The new constitution does make the courts accessible and open to litigation.

But the LRC fears the bill of rights may backfire and be used as a tool to "entrench the inequities created by apartheid", since rights do not work just to the benefit of the disadvantaged. People will use them to protect their vested interests. Will the government be experienced enough to tackle this?, it asks.

But for the LRC, making rights real for South Africans is the way to deal with the injustices of the past and to ensure the development of democracy. As it says about its work: "We may never again have the opportunities which we are likely to have over the next few years."