Three South African Laws Protecting Citizens Against the Violation of Human Rights in Unsafe Living Environments

On this page we discuss the three laws that protect citizens against the human rights violation of an unsafe living environment in South Africa.

The concept of ‘human rights’ has, over time, evolved to encompass a broad range of entitlements and freedoms considered fundamental for human dignity and growth. One such fundamental right is the right to a safe and healthy living environment. This right, although not explicitly defined in many international human rights documents, has been recognised as intrinsic to the enjoyment of other human rights such as the right to life, health, and dignity. In South Africa, the commitment to safeguarding this right is enshrined in various pieces of legislation. This article will delve into three specific South African laws that work to protect citizens against human rights violations in the form of unsafe living environments: The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996), The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (1998), and The Housing Act (1997). Each of these laws offer unique protections and mechanisms to ensure all South Africans can live in a safe, healthy environment.

Three South African Laws Protecting Citizens Against the Violation of Human Rights in Unsafe Living Environments

The three laws that protect citizens against the human rights violation of an unsafe living environment in South Africa are:

  • The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996): This is the supreme law of the country, and its Bill of Rights, under Section 24, explicitly protects the right to an environment that is not harmful to one’s health or well-being. This implies the provision of safe living conditions for all citizens.
  • The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (1998): NEMA is a comprehensive piece of legislation specifically designed to promote sustainable environmental practices and to minimize environmental damage. By promoting a safe and sustainable environment, NEMA indirectly safeguards citizens’ rights to a safe living environment.
  • The Housing Act (1997): This law facilitates sustainable housing development and outlines the rights and duties of tenants and landlords. By ensuring that housing development meets certain established minimum standards for safety and decency, it directly protects citizens’ rights to a safe living environment.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996)

The supreme law of the land, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, specifically in Chapter 2: The Bill of Rights, provides numerous protections for the rights of individuals, including the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. Section 24 states: “Everyone has the right (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and (b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations”.

This broad and encompassing law provides a foundational level of protection against any violation of the right to a safe living environment. These constitutional rights obligate the state to take reasonable measures to protect these rights. The Constitution also allows citizens to approach the Constitutional Court in case of any infringement or threatened infringement of these rights.

The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (1998)

The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998 is a piece of South African legislation aimed specifically at promoting sustainable environmental practices and ensuring that environmental damage is minimized. Section 2 outlines the principles of the Act, which include that “environmental management must place people and their needs at the forefront of its concern, and serve their physical, psychological, developmental, cultural and social interests equitably”.

This Act also establishes legal consequences for individuals or corporations that fail to comply with its principles, thus providing an important mechanism for enforcing the right to a safe environment. Furthermore, it facilitates public participation in decision-making processes related to environmental governance.

The Housing Act (1997)

The Housing Act of 1997 in South Africa is another crucial piece of legislation aimed at ensuring safe living environments for all citizens. It provides for the facilitation of a sustainable housing development process. This Act outlines the rights and duties of tenants and landlords, and requires housing development to meet certain established minimum standards to ensure safety and decency.

In the preamble of the Act, it is stated: “It is desirable that the law should promote the achievement of a non-racial, integrated society through the development of sustainable human settlements and quality housing”. Section 2 of the Act, for instance, tasks the government with creating and maintaining an environment conducive to viable, socially and economically integrated communities.

These laws demonstrate South Africa’s commitment to ensuring that all citizens have the right to a safe and healthy living environment. They cover a broad range of issues from environmental protection to housing, offering layers of protection against human rights violations in this area. It is important to note, however, that while these laws exist, the reality of implementation can often be a challenge, and ongoing work is necessary to ensure that these rights are fully realized for all South African citizens.

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