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Offering dignity on Human Rights Day

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Good morning world! Today, 21 March, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day. A day set aside to commemorate and to remind us about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa. Whilst this day also pays tribute to the tragic events of the Sharpeville massacre, it is a celebration of our constitution, one of the most progressive in the world, enshrining equal rights for all.

There is a real sense of constant struggle and activism still happening in our land for these equal rights, for retribution and for power over another. Yet, to me, one very important value is so often lost in this tussle – dignity. The United Nations declares that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR))

This morning I find myself drawn to this particular word – dignity. What does it mean for our interactions with each other? Is it merely the abstract dictionary definition (Ref: The Oxford Dictionary) of a ‘state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect’? I wonder:

· How do I offer dignity to another?

· In what way do I live ‘dignity’ everyday?

· What would it be like for me to view dignity as an active, ‘doing’ word; a verb?

I think it has something to do with acknowledgement. I am invited, through my shared humanity with the world around me, to offer the gift of acknowledgement to another in a way that says – I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge your presence and you matter. There needs to be a measure of accountability in me that acknowledges, in the words of Roman playwright Terence, “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me”. I share equality with even those I find myself struggling with. A sobering thought for me.

I also think it has something to do with the act of noticing. Do I observe, pay attention to, take note of those around me? Do I treat others as being worthy of recognition or attention? What is it I notice about another? Is it our different skin colour, our dress sense, eating habits or street address? Do I see the person inside the rags, the father laughing with his child or the way our ‘millennial’ youth communicates? Are my lenses tinted, sharp or blurry?

William de Burgh writes:

“I am not for gay rights.

I am not for women’s rights.

I am not for handicapped rights.

I am not for elderly rights.


Simply by identifying people as gay, straight, male, female, black, white, Asian, Jewish, handicapped or elderly we are further dividing ourselves”

Do I find myself labelling and boxing people in this same way? How does this change the dignity I express to another human being?

Today, I also remember Human Right’s Day in 2015. This was the day intentionally chosen to officially launch the Institute for Creative Conversation as it resonates with our belief that each and every person of our nation has a story that deserves to be told…and heard.

The i4cc was launched as a collective of professional and passionate colleagues who work towards creating connection and collaboration in the South African context rich in diverse cultures, communities, religions and traditions. We believe in the rights of each person we encounter, whether through training, workshops or counselling conversations to dignity, acceptance, hospitality, respect and to be heard.

We offer this through the practice of narrative ideas as a way of being. Let me suggest it this way - to work with a narrative perspective is to work with the everyday and extraordinary stories of people’s lives that shape people’s sense of wellbeing and identity. Narrative practices involve being clear on the problems and situations that prevent people from having the kinds of lives and relationships that could be possible for them.

Essential to the practice of narrative is the acknowledgement of any interaction. It’s a moment in which I connect to my own experience as a human with awareness and kindness, and then open my awareness and kindness to the experience of others. It is a circle of holding each other and ourselves with deep listening and reverence, honoring the precious and sacred beauty of our human nature.

Gathering stories, through listening, allows me to witness the stories of history, pain and brokenness inflicted on humanity and to acknowledge the stories of bravery, courage and determination that emerge. Trevor Hudson, co-founder of the Institute for Creative Conversation, speaks of how stories allow us a “personal encounter with the pain of our shattered and fragmented community” (1999:19).

By listening to stories we are essentially helping the storytellers to find their ‘Voice’. In relation to feminist theory and narrative therapy, ‘voice’ is the ability to find language that validates the research participants’ own experiences. Finding a voice suggests encouraging people to appreciate that when they use their own words to describe their own experiences, no one has the right to take the legitimacy of that story away from them. Our country is full of the unheard voices of the silenced, the hurting and the marginalised.

I love the awareness that the “butterfly effect” offers. Meteorologists have observed that the flutter of butterfly wings in one part of the world can create vibrations that in turn cause massive weather changes in another part of the world. One small movement can create great change. Communities need to be reminded that small just actions can contribute to big changes in the entire organism. (Dykstra 2005:212)

My hope is that as we encounter the world around us today, regardless of whether we chat to a loved one or see the beggar on the street corner, we will notice and acknowledge each other – for our sameness, for our differences, for our humanity.

Yours in humanity,



Dykstra, R.C. 2005. Images of pastoral care. Missouri: Chalice Press

Hudson, T. 1999. Compassionate caring: a daily pilgrimage of pain and hope. Guildford: Eagle.


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