The South African Constitution minces no words regarding access to medical care.
“Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care,” the document declares, adding that: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights.”
At a time when the United States is engaged in an archaic debate over whether to even try and provide universal access to health care, most other countries well understand the absurdity of conditioning access to basic human needs—including access to healthcare, housing and education—on the ability to pay.
That understanding was championed by Nelson Mandela, whose life and legacy is being honored this week by President Obama, members of Congress and leaders from around the world. Fittingly, the memorials for Mandela will coincide with this week’s sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption (on December 10, 1948) by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document that the former South African president revered as a touchstone for nation building and governing.
Mandela, a lawyer by training and a student of constitutions, steered South Africa toward a broad understanding of human rights. When his country adopted its Constitution in 1996, he announced that “the new constitution obliges us to strive to improve the quality of life of the people. In this sense, our national consensus recognizes that there is nothing else that can justify the existence of government but to redress the centuries of unspeakable privations, by striving to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease. It obliges us, too, to promote the development of independent civil society structures.”
There are many reasons to honor Mandela. And there is much to be borrowed from his legacy.
But it is absolutely vital, as we focus on this man, to recall his wise words with regard to human rights—and the role that government had in assuring access to those rights.
Mandela embraced the great vision of the twentieth-century idealists who, at the end of World War II, recognized a responsibility to address the inequality that fostered fear, hatred and totalitarianism. It was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who reminded Americans seventy years ago that “at all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”