#ExpectRespect: Reflections on human rights discourse and demands

By Dumiso Gatsha

I remember sitting in a conference room at a venue close to OR Tambo International Airport in December 2018. Holiday vibes and closing off for year end were the main things in mind.

I was trying to understand what my role and contribution could be in this large, filled and passioned conference room. A movement building forum built on the premise of bringing together a wide spectrum of individuals across the region with a common thematic association to Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights (SRHR), despite its many variants of understanding, politics and levels of knowledge;

I was trying to figure out how I fitted into this larger group of change agents, movers, shakers and decision makers. I saw it as a ‘converted’ lot. Those in the know; in the fold of understanding, or at least able to see the injustices faced by many women and girls, people with disabilities, those with albinism and those with non-conforming sexual orientation, gender identity, expression and sex characteristics, among others who are marginalised.

Many human rights defenders (HRDs) have paid the ultimate price of death, or have sacrificed the bragging rights of a proud family, or sanctity of meaningful relationships, while others work themselves to poverty. The politics of populism today reflects a polarising dynamic that exasperates the operating environment for HRDs. Within this context and in facing my own struggles, I came to see the power of #ExpectRespect versus demanding rights. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the only or most ideal of solutions we face in times of injustice, but it is an approach one can adopt/amend to suit the fight in some struggles.

‘Building advocacy on the premise of expecting mutual regard for each other, as opposed to demanding so allows for dialogue.’

I remember being overwhelmed at the Forum by all the emotion, anger and dismay as people were sharing their experiences and opinions. Hurt people, or those that know those who were hurt and those that were the cause of the hurt. In this one heavy room with my simplistic thoughts: I could only process this experience as a means to strengthening my work. I understood there that respect belongs to everyone, even those who might not deserve it. Meaning that I should have the same regard for someone that I’d like to do the same for me, particularly when they don’t do so. This is not always the case in activism.

Building advocacy on the premise of expecting mutual regard for each other, as opposed to demanding so allows for dialogue. It prevents doors being shut and repercussions against visibility and protest/dissent. It may deceive the powers that be or stroke their egos but it allows for dialogue. It may be perceived as ‘selling out’, or take away from the pains & sacrifices of victims and survivors. This thinking shifted when what was deemed ‘unacceptable’ presented itself in the forum.

I saw the value of allowing the offensive and repulsive to express themselves. One gets to hear the views of the oppressor and understand the frame of thinking. After all, when power is threatened, it is best to let it show its capabilities in speech rather than in repercussion. #ExpectRespect, for me, means I can assert my rights in a way that others can understand rather than feel attacked. The problem with power, patriarchy and privilege (PPP) is that anything that doesn’t resemble either is a threat to the collective. They are so fragile, despite repressing diversity and rights, that they need to be accommodated just as an advertiser fuels/creates an audience’s needs. They need to be cushioned through various means of flattery, recognition of HRDs’ advancements that they might not have wanted to occur, using social justice messaging, economic arguments, presenting incentives, storytelling, building evidence or even intersectionality, because it is difficult to pick one struggle. PPP are so arrogant, they cannot see either one of themselves or the collective in their variant forms in state, systems and society (SSS). They are so aggressive that what threatens them can be annihilated through influences of SSS.

#ExpectRespect redefines the perception of ‘aggression’ and ‘threat’ by using the messaging and intellectual assimilation of PPP’s proprietary existence. It is a war of values that are uncovered by dialogue. It is a testament to the shared aspirations of development and progression for all. The kind that allows the struggles that one and many alike experience to be holistically addressed. This means I can assert my rights as an individual and impact others in the way PPP perceives without the assumed threat of a demand – but rather an expectation because of the commitment to democracy, freedoms and liberties that PPP subscribe to. Whether the UN’s SDGs, AU’s Agenda 2063 or Botswana’s Vision 2036, inclusion, equality and democratic principles are all shared. More importantly, the regard for these commitments by either party (the oppressor/PPP and the oppressed) is unique within the African context. That means they can be respected in commitment and in practice not just by those of PPP, but by all others who fall into society.

Unique in our context is the ideal/value/spirit of ‘ubuntu’/’botho’. Regardless of differences (us versus them), taboos or opinions/beliefs/ethnicities, we are all connected through the spirit of ubuntu/botho. An ideal that recognises and acknowledges community, belonging and identity. An ideal that the shared threat of a previous (or rather now more institutionalised) form of PPP resonates far greater than our differences. That the historical injustices of colonialism and its mechanisms of oppression in their long-lasting nature can be the common lessons learned for having dialogue. That the injustice to one is an injustice to another. That solidarity, empathy and shared respect can be expected by virtue of being human.

This is the beauty of being in a room filled with the struggles, pains and injustices of many we advocate for. Their stories are carried through immigration hurdles, reporting deadlines and personal dilemmas in the spirit of changing the world. This is the symphony of hope and dreams for a better Africa. That each one can belong and be safe enough to not only survive but thrive. #ExpectRespect reshapes the narrative of civic thought and action. Thank you Sex Rights Africa Network for bringing this new consciousness to my human rights journey.

This article has been published in conjunction with this post under Action.

Dumi is a human rights defender, feminist and radical researcher. PhD (Law) candidate, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and independent consultant for state shadow reports, participatory human rights research and grassroots civic action. IG: dumi.activist / www.dumisogatsha.com / gatshadumiso@yahoo.com.