chapter  7
Conclusion: human rights in their ordinary state
Pages 6

After the Cold War, the international language of human rights seemed for a moment convincingly stable, humane and universal. In fact in the 1990s, few could imagine a political language other than liberal democracy and human rights. Yet, by the time of writing this book the ideology of human rights – in South Africa and beyond – had more than ever assumed a paradoxical presence: one of simultaneous omnipresence and conspicuous absence. On the one hand the discourse of human rights keeps growing through techniques of national and transnational constitutionalism, on the other hand the human rights discourse faces strong contenders. The major contenders are consumerism, which promises boundless diver-

sion and pleasure, and religion, with its promise of a better afterlife. They both claim equal if not more effective ways to dignity and redress for the disadvantaged, and a sense of belonging and entitlement to those already comfortable. More importantly, violence, especially state violence, opposite which human rights like to position themselves, is no longer so easily delegitimised as meaningless, destructive and irrational. State violence is being increasingly (popularly) approved of and institutionalised as a way of getting things done, or even as a way of bringing about justice. Police officers can shoot robbers on the spot without disciplinary consequences, and be celebrated as crimefighting heroes. Legal provisions are being loosened to allow greater leeway for lethal violence, not just in South Africa with its section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, but worldwide in the war on terror. Even within liberal democracies, war can be declared against those who do not want to play according to the rules, a condition amounting at times to ‘a state of exception’. Even the coining of this term marked very clearly, with a kind of shock, a new era in the post-Cold War period in which states and modes of governing employed by states could use such spectacular and sovereign violence without being held accountable for it. Yet at the same time the allure of human rights has not ceased to affect us.

They keep on working their magic and radiating their promise. South Africa is an especially good example of this, not so much its real-politics, but as the political-ethical idea of South Africa which continues to inspire people to