Date10 October 2007
Published date10 October 2007
AuthorJan Froestad,Clifford Shearing
Jan Froestad and Clifford Shearing
In this paper we look to activities of people living primarily in informal
housing within South Africa to explore how they have thought about
articulating and protecting the sorts of values thought of as human rights.
The concept of human rights has meaning within these collectivities even
though they may never have encountered a professional human rights
discourse. For example,even though the vast majority of South Africans have
never read the South African Constitution they know that it exists and that it
protects human rights. Similarly most South Africanshave an idea as to what
sorts of values are referred to by human rights even though they may not be
able to articulate what these are and may not endorse all or some of these
values. In short, human rights exist as part of South Africans’ life world.
In what follows we consider how groups of South Africans who practice a
dispute resolution process (that has come to be called the Zwelethemba
model) articulate and practice human rights within in the context of the
processes this model promotes. We do so to explore how looking to the
practices of ordinary people might contribute to our understanding of what
human rights mean in the day-to-day circumstances of peoples lives and to
Crime and Human Rights
Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 9, 193–214
Copyright r2007 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1521-6136/doi:10.1016/S1521-6136(07)09008-2
see how these meanings might be articulated with the meanings given to
human rights within professional discourses. Our primary purpose is to
consider how such an articulation might contribute to debates taking place
amongst professionals within contemporary human rights discourses. That
is, our objective is to see what, if anything, a bottom-up perspective might
contribute to contemporary debates about human rights.
Discourses on human rights have been conceived as the last grand narrative
(Alves, 2000), characterized as an international communication about
human freedom and dignity that can be thought of signalling an emergent or
‘‘overlapping consensus’’ about justice and core human values in a world of
doctrinal fragmentation and insecurity (Donnelly, 2001). One consequence
of this, it has been argued, is that ‘‘the language of universal rights has been
seized by the oppressed and excluded as a weapon in the fight for freedom
and dignity’’ (Goodhart, 2003, p. 959). This claim is not without its critiques
and many scholars have expressed reservations about the continued value of
human rights as a source of freedom, critique and reinvention.
In The End of Human Rights, Douzinas maintains that the human rights
discourse has been loosing its value as an inspirational source of human
emancipation as it has been used to constitute to a language that strengthens
state powers and expert knowledge (Douzinas, 2000). Baxi (2002) argues that
the human rightsdiscourse is being hijacked bypowerful groups and that, as a
consequence, it is being uncoupled from the suffering and needs of the poor
and the oppressed (see also Twining, 2006). Similarly Guilhot (2005) argues
that human rights, through a process of ‘‘professionalization’’ and ‘‘technical
specialization’’, has been translated into a language of state administration
and institutions. These argumentsidentify human rights as a resource thatcan
be mobilized in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. The challenging
question, that these and other observers raise, is how to uphold the ‘‘critical
intent’’ of human rights. Central to this challenge is how human rights as a
resource may be mobilized by the poor and oppressed. This, Guilhot argues,
requires linking the discourse to perceptions of injustice (see also Erman, 2005).
Utilizing the distinction between life-world and system (Habermas, 1988,1997)
Fortman argues that human rights have become a system of:
Intergovernmental and nongovernmental centres, compliance and complaints procedures
with commissions, committees and courts of law, training programmes and academic

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