Learning and Teaching about Realizing Human Rights: Lessons from South Africa’s Constitution, Commons and Classroom

Paper presented at the 2013 CLEA Conference in Durban

Nathan Cooper
University of Lincoln, UK

The right to water has been incorporated in to national law and explicitly articulated in the South African Constitution. But many citizens continue to face challenges in fulfilling this most basic of rights and necessities. This paper focuses on two approaches to realising the human right to water in South Africa. The first approach explores the role of the South African Constitution and the Constitutional Court in declaring and interpreting the ‘right to sufficient water’. The second approach considers a ‘commons’ approach to natural resource allocation.

A commons approach (or approaches – given their variety of forms) emphasises the importance of shared community involvement in questions of resource allocation and is founded on the premise that decisions should be in touch with (and where appropriate, generated by) those people directly affected by them. It is contested that such close-quarter management can produce tailored and responsive solutions best suited to realising people’s rights (to sufficient water in this case) as well as enfranchising and empowering people to be agents of their own rights-realisation.

The rise of commons approaches can be understood as a response to the perceived limitations of ‘top-down’ rights realisation. But commons approaches are more than reactionary. They may offer locally sensitive and environmentally sustainable ways for communities to directly manage resources.

The extent to which these two approaches are distinct, complementary or conflicting, and the impact of these approaches for teaching human rights are then explored.

This discussion of the pedagogical implications of understanding alternative approaches to human rights draws on my doctrinal and empirical research in this area, as well as reflections from my experiences of teaching human rights in the UK and South Africa. Of particular importance is an understanding of, and response to, the variety of ways human rights are conceptualised, their normative functions and how these effect expectations and presumptions about relations between citizens and the State.

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