Human rights in South Africa
Human rights are those basic and fundamental rights to which every person - for the simple reason of being human - is entitled. These rights are inalienable: a person has them forever and they cannot be taken away.
The natural rights of South Africans received no protection before the country became a constitutional democracy in 1994. (See the history of the Constitution for the background to the struggle for human rights and democracy.)
Chapter 3 of the interim Constitution introduced legally protected fundamental rights to South Africa for the first time. Now fundamental human rights are entrenched in Chapter 2 - sections 7 to 39 - of the 1996 Constitution.
The Bill of Rights is arguably the part of the Constitution that has had the greatest impact on life in this country. As the first words of this chapter say: "This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom."
Vertical and horizontal application
It goes without saying that the Bill of Rights is binding on the government. Section 8 says it binds the executive, the judiciary and all organs of state - which means everyone from the president to the police.
But a recurring theme in constitutional law is whether private individuals and bodies (such as clubs, companies and private schools) are also obliged to observe such rights. It is widely recognised that some private bodies, such as large companies, can have great power. Shouldn't citizens be protected from non-state bodies that, for example, discriminate unfairly?
This question, left unanswered in the interim Constitution, was cleared up by Section 8 of the final Constitution: the Bill of Rights doesn't only apply vertically (from the state downwards, to its citizens) - it also applies, where applicable, horizontally (between one citizen or private body and another).
First, second and third generation rights
Human rights fall into two broad classes - first and second generation. Civil and political rights, those traditionally included in constitutions around the world, tend to be considered first-generation rights.
These rights, which were given expression by the Enlightenment thinkers, were the first to be recognised by law. They begin with the basic rights to life, dignity, equality and privacy. But they also include the fundamental freedoms associated with democracy: freedom of expression, association, assembly, opinion, belief and religion, and movement.
Second-generation rights are those connected to the social and economic features of life. South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world to entrench rights such as access to food, water, housing, healthcare and social security - section 27. The right to education and the special rights of children also fit in here.
Third-generation rights - a relatively new field in human rights - concern the environment and development, as well as culture and language.
The limitation clause
At first glance it might seem strange to include, in a document dedicated to protecting rights, a clause that allows rights to be limited. But this is a necessary feature of life in society: people inevitably have competing and conflicting rights.
One person's right to dignity, for example, may clash with another's right to freedom of expression. One citizen's right to be protected from violent suspected criminals will conflict with that suspect's right to freedom of movement.
It's an established principle, then, that rights can be limited. The challenge, though, is to allow them to be limited only under strict conditions. If the Bill of Rights simply allowed any kind of restriction, its very purpose would be undermined.
As a result, section 36 of the Constitution, known as the limitation clause, lays down a test that any limitation must meet. The two central concepts in this test are reasonableness and proportionality. Any restriction on a right must be reasonable and must be proportional in that the impact or extent of the restriction must match the importance of the aim served by the limitation of the right.
Interpreting the Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights is unlike any ordinary piece of legislation. The language used in many of the sections is broad, which means the rights need careful interpretation by the judges who apply this document.
There is some explicit guidance, however. An important instruction is contained in section 39(1)(a): "When interpreting the Bill of Rights, a court, tribunal or forum must promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom."
Judges are reminded to keep these values - which crop up frequently in South Africa's constitutional law - at the front of their minds when dealing with the Bill of Rights.
Changing the Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights cannot be changed by a simple parliamentary majority. Rather, it can only be amended by a Bill passed by the National Assembly, if at least two-thirds (67 percent of the members of Parliament) vote for it; and the National Council of Provinces, if at least six provinces vote for it.