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Human Rights day demands we address daily discrimination

South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day on 21 March. It is also the day declared by the UN as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya makes us aware of two forms of discrimination, so commonplace to our society that we seem not to see the everyday injustice in them.

Among the myriad of interpretations and unpleasant debates as to what the Christian scriptures really mean, the concept that we are all created in the “image and likeness of God” has few, if any, disputes.

Yet strangely, Christians (or insert any other faith group here), have in many instances imagined themselves to be created more in that image than other human beings.

History is splattered with blood from battles fought between various groups. But for those of faith, it is as if those of no faith were not created by the same God. So strong is this conviction that it is almost a received truth among atheists that religion is the source of most conflicts in the history of humankind.

South Africa’s Human Rights Day offers people of faith the opportunity to reflect on how, or whether, they have at any time seen others as created in the same image and likeness of God that they understand themselves to have been created. If so, are they not deserving of the dignity and rights bestowed upon them by the same God?

In a country such as South Africa, so many live on the margins and can easily fall prey to the bigotry of some — for no reason — other than being different to an expected category of what it means to be human in the eyes of one or other group. Therefore, Human Rights Day demands that people of faith ask themselves tough questions as to how they have understood the idea that all are “created in the image and likeness of God”.

Inspired by the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 where 69 black people were shot and killed by apartheid police for resisting the law, that forced all adult blacks to carry identification documents at all times or risk being jailed, the United Nations declared 21 March would be International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The theme for this year is: “Promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination.”

Whereas South Africa has a long and shameful history as a “leader” in racial bigotry; a new form of deadly bigotry is starting to emerge. Yet again, it is based on skin colour: discrimination, even murder, of those with albinism.

This is the case of 14-year-old Gabisile Shabane. In January, Gabisile and her 15-month-old cousin, Nkosikhona Ngwenya, were kidnapped from their home in Hlalanikahle, near Witbank.

Gabisile was murdered, having had her head chopped off. She was targeted because of her albinism. Her cousin was also later found dead on the side of the road in Cullinan, east of Pretoria. Police have made arrests relating to the two deaths and the suspects have since appeared in the Witbank Magistrate’s Court.

Murder is always shocking and unacceptable. Bigotry, however, seems a little more justifiable. Thus, people with albinism have to live with a plethora of negative attitudes towards them. These attitudes, at face value harmless and seemingly resulting from ignorance, lead to the violent extermination of people living with albinism as was the case with Gabisile.

The UN message for International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination states:

“Every person is entitled to human rights without discrimination. The rights to equality and non-discrimination are cornerstones of human rights law. […]  States are urged to take comprehensive measures to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and to promote tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity.”

It would be a shame if South Africa replaced the discrimination and bigotry of people on the basis of their geographical origins with the bigotry and violence based on differences in our biological make-up.

If we are to do our part in “promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination”, as the UN calls, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the everyday discrimination and bigotry committed against people with albinism.

Human Rights Day is indeed a good day to remember that being created in the image and likeness of God goes beyond appearances.

The Albinism Society of South Africa website has published 10 of the most common myths around albinism and countered these with facts.

Myth 1: They are results of inbreeding or incest, that is, breed from closely related people, especially over many generations.

Fact: The body of people living with Albinism has little or no ability to produce the colour of the skin, hair and eyes. This colour is called “melanin”. It is a genetic condition, which means it can be passed from parents to their children, but no studies have shown that this is a result of incest.

Myth 2: Albinism is a punishment or a curse from the gods or ancestral spirits due to wrongs done in the family.

Fact: Albinism is a genetic condition that is passed on from parents to children. Many people are carriers of this recessive gene. Albinism is not a curse.

Myth 3: Body parts of persons living with albinism make potent charms that can make people rich and successful.

Fact: This is not true. It is a myth spread by witchdoctors in order to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Myth 4: Drinking the blood of a person with albinism gives extra magical powers

Fact: This is not true. Persons with albinism are human beings like anyone else and do not possess any magical powers.

Myth 5: People with albinism are sterile.

Fact: This is not true. Persons with albinism are fertile and can have children like other people.

Myth 6: A person with albinism cannot have regularly pigmented children.

Fact: A person with albinism can give birth to regularly pigmented children if his/her partner is not a carrier of a similar recessive gene for albinism. The children may be carriers of the recessive gene but it will not be expressed in them.

Myth 7: People with albinism are not intelligent.

Fact: This is not true. Persons with albinism are intelligent and also perform well academically like other normally pigmented people. There are teachers, lawyers, politicians and musicians who are living with albinism.

Myth 8: People with albinism cannot see during the day but see well at night.

Fact: People with albinism have eyesight problems due to lack of ‘melanin’ pigmentation in the retina. They can see during the day and also at night, but they may either be short or long sighted and may need sight aids.

Myth 9: That the mother slept with a white man.

Fact: Children born with albinism may look ‘white’ due to absent or reduced pigmentation but are not products of cross race sexual relationships.

Myth 10: That people with albinism don’t die, they simply vanish.

Fact: All people with albinism die like other normally pigmented people. There’s no such thing as vanishing.

Photo MONUSCO/Abel Kavanagh

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.