By Morapedi Sibeko

  • South Africa commemorates Nelson Mandela Month in July and celebrates 30 years of democracy, reflecting on Madiba’s dedication to the rights and dignity of People with Disabilities (PWD).
  • Mandela’s advocacy ensured that discrimination against PWD became illegal in South Africa’s democratic constitution and led to significant legislative and policy developments.
  • The ongoing efforts to support PWD in South Africa build on Mandela’s legacy, highlighting the importance of inclusivity and equality for all citizens.

In July, we celebrate Nelson Mandela Month, a period dedicated to recognising the legacy of one of South Africa’s greatest leaders. This year, South Africa marks 30 years of democracy, a milestone that underscores Nelson Mandela’s lifelong commitment to equality and justice. Known affectionately as Madiba, Mandela championed the rights and dignity of People with Disabilities (PWD), understanding the importance of diversity and the need to support underprivileged communities throughout his life.

From the beginning of his activism, Nelson Mandela demonstrated a deep dedication to the rights and equality of every South African, including those with disabilities. As an advocate for universal human rights, he endorsed the principles of the 1955 Freedom Charter, addressing all forms of prejudice. His early work laid the groundwork for inclusive policies, motivating further efforts in post-apartheid South Africa to protect the rights and equality of individuals with disabilities.

During his administration, Mandela ensured that the rights of PWD were acknowledged and upheld. Under his leadership, the new democratic constitution made discrimination based on disability illegal, providing a crucial legal foundation for inclusivity. In 2000, his administration passed the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, reinforcing the commitment to end discrimination against PWD.

Madiba’s broader campaign against apartheid was rooted in the belief that every person deserved respect and equal opportunities, regardless of their physical or mental abilities. His numerous speeches and publications highlight his dedication to justice and equality for all South Africans, including PWD. Mandela used his global influence to raise awareness about the challenges faced by PWD. In a speech during the International Day of Disabled Persons in Johannesburg in 1997, he stated, “We cannot claim to have accomplished our liberty as long as there are PWD who are unable to take full advantage of the freedoms and liberties granted by our Constitution. We must create a society that offers all South Africans, including PWD, equal opportunity as part of our dedication to freedom and democracy.” His visits to schools and facilities serving PWD, such as his 1996 visit to the Disabled Children’s Action Group, raised awareness about the issues this community faces and emphasised the need for inclusion and societal change.

Examining the changes in government policy over time is crucial to understanding the advancements made in South Africa’s support for PWD. Mr Chris Bame from the Service to People with Disabilities unit highlighted that through the creation and implementation of relevant frameworks, South Africa has made progress in addressing issues and combating discrimination against PWD at legislative, administrative, and policy levels. The country signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its Optional Protocol in 2007, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa in 2008, committing to uphold and carry out the rights of PWD. The White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, approved by the Cabinet in 2015, nurtures the UNCRPD for all aspects of service delivery by the public sector, including various government departments and nonprofit organisations. This White Paper guides the establishment of sector-specific policies, laws, programs, budgets, and reporting systems throughout the government in compliance with constitutional and global provisions.

Bame pointed out several noteworthy efforts by the Department of Social Development (DSD) to support accessibility and inclusivity for PWD. Since 2012, DSD and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have collaborated to create best practice models for PWD, emphasising the empowerment of PWD and government officials about disability mainstreaming within the South African context. This collaboration has led to the development of guidelines on services to PWD for empowerment and disability mainstreaming at the district level, in line with the District Development Model (DDM). Expanding on these initiatives, the project’s 2024–2028 goal now focuses on creating a long-term model for providing community-based respite care services to parents of children with disabilities.

Nelson Mandela’s campaign for the rights of PWD exemplifies his enduring legacy as an advocate of justice and equality. Through his early activism, presidency, and global impact, Mandela consistently emphasised the need to end discrimination and promote diversity. His support for the rights of PWD remains a vibrant example of his ongoing legacy. Mandela’s work set the stage for significant legislative developments and societal shifts that have improved the quality of life for many South Africans with disabilities. As the country celebrates Nelson Mandela Month and 30 years of democracy, it is essential to recognise the achievements thus far and reaffirm the commitment to building a society that truly acknowledges and supports all its members, including PWD.


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