Who are the people you admire most for what they have done for human rights? As South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day, we look at what this important day means. And we profile some of the current South African heroes who are standing up for human rights.

Human Rights Day, 21 March

Human Rights Day in South Africa is historically linked with 21 March 1960, and the events at Sharpeville. On that day, 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the apartheid pass laws. This day marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights. It became an iconic date in our country’s history, serving as a reminder of our rights and the cost that was paid for people who fought for their rights.

Celebrating Our Human Rights Heroes

With South Africa’ long history of activism, we have produced a number of iconic figures who have made remarkable contributions towards the protection of human rights. During apartheid, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu all gained international fame for their efforts to end racial oppression in South Africa.

Zackie Achmat

Aids Activist Zackie Achmat

Zackie Achmat has become one of the most well-known global activists fighting on behalf of people living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He was an anti-apartheid activist in his youth, being imprisoned several times. In 1988, Achmat founded the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which is today one of the most influential organisations raising public awareness about the HIV/AIDS and promoting greater access to treatment. He also fights for a number of other social causes, including equal access to justice and the rights of gay and lesbian people.

Imtiaz Sooliman

Imtiaz Sooliman Gift of the Givers

Imtiaz Sooliman is a true icon of South Africa, in his role as the founder of the Gift of the Givers Foundation. Gift of the Givers is the largest disaster response NGO in Africa, providing R2.8 billion of aid to 27 countries since it was founded in 1993. Sooliman heads up relief efforts in some of the most war-torn and disaster-stricken areas of the world.

Farai Mubaiwa

22-year-old Farai Mubaiwa is a youth leader, activist and feminist. In 2015, she founded Africa Matters, an organisation that focuses on empowering and upskilling young Africans. She is also a project manager at the Aarum Institute — a leading TB and HIV research institute. For her outstanding work in bettering communities and empowering young Africans, Mubaiwa received the Queen’s Young Leader for South Africa Award in 2017.

Kumi Naidoo

Kumi Naidoo South Africa

Kumi Naidoo became involved in anti-apartheid activities when he was only 15, during which time he was also involved in community youth work. He went into exile in England. Upon returning, he conducted literacy campaigns for disadvantaged South Africans. He became the first African head of Greenpeace in 2009, and was also the founding chairperson of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. He became secretary-general of human rights organisation, Amnesty International, in 2018, until he was forced to step down in December 2019 due to health reasons.

Dr Lillian Cingo

Dr Cingo is a healthcare hero in South Africa, having been the manager of Transnet’s Phelophepha Health-Care Train — a train service that takes health-care services to rural South Africans — for 13 years. She dedicated almost her entire life to running the train. She lived 9 months of every year on board and greatly expanded the quality and scope of services, serving 40 000 people every year. She continues to do her outstanding work in communities, sourcing donor funding for health facilities and mobile clinics in remote rural areas.

Lucinda Evans

Lucinda Evans has been one of South Africa’s strongest forces in fighting gender-based violence. She founded the non-profit organisation Philisa Abafazi Bethu (meaning Healing Our Women) in the Cape Flats area of Lavender Hill, providing support to victims of gender-based violence. She led the nationwide outcry against gender-based violence in 2019, leading large groups of women to parliament in protest. In the same year, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 women of the year.

Nosipho Bele

Nosipho Bele (29) has been recognised as one of the country’s exceptional young activists and leaders. During a gap year in her university studies at UCT, she tutored high school pupils in Nyanga township in Cape Town. Recognising the lack of access to tertiary education, Bele started the Mentor Me to Success initiative. The initiative invited fellow UCT students to coach township learners and help them apply for tertiary education. She became one of the first South Africans to receive the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2015, and is now one of the youngest lecturers in the Arts department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

We salute the South Africans who have dedicated their lives to fighting for human rights! What are you doing to stand up for human rights? Let us know in the comment box below.