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Rastafari: Reflections on rights
Written by Elizabeth Button (1) Sunday, 06 October 2013 12:17

On 19 April 1980, practicing Rastafarian and reggae artist Bob Marley, invited by the newly elected Zimbabwean Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, performed at Rufaro stadium in Harare to mark the Republic of Zimbabwe’s official independence from British rule.(2) For his final act, Marley sang the words of his influential song Exodus: “Jah come to break downpression, rule equality, wipe away transgression, set the captives free.”(3) More recently, across the region of Sub-Saharan Africa, regular reports of human rights violations committed on Rastafarians have appeared in local newspapers. For example, Rastafarians have been harassed by government and corporate forces based on their appearance, accused of illegally possessing marijuana, forced out of their homes, and detained in prison under conditions that violate their religious beliefs.(4) Much reportage has come from the Republic of South Africa where the case of Lerato Radebe - a 13-year-old girl who was denied education for having dreadlocks because they contravened school policy - received heightened public attention.(5)

This paper outlines the core international human rights instruments and regional and domestic laws on freedom of religion and expression. It offers context for human rights violations, as well as crucial points of discussion on Rastafarians’ rights. This paper recommends that, in cases where clear human rights abuses have occurred, African governments should ensure that justice is achieved. Moreover, governments should do more to promote the accurate dissemination of information on Rastafari through awareness-raising in school and by encouraging more respectful portrayals in the media.

Written rights

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion...” and “...freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”(6) Article 19 also assures the right to “...receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”(7) Under Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) everyone is guaranteed their rights without discrimination of any kind including with regards to religion, opinion, and national or social origin.(8) Article 15 also states that everyone has the right to take part in cultural life including the conservation, development and diffusion of culture.(9) Articles 18 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) affirm the same pledges of the UDHR.(10) The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (DEAFIDBRB) reinforces these rights but, under Article 1, adds that these freedoms “...may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”(11) Articles 3 and 4 say that discrimination based on religion or belief is considered a human rights violation and that states shall enact legislation that prohibits such discrimination.(12) With specific reference to education, Article 5 affirms the right for children to access school in the matter of religious beliefs.(13)

The Preamble and Articles 2, 8 and 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) provides similar guarantees with regards to religious freedom, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination based on religious belief.(14)

Almost all African constitutions and laws protect religious freedom (notable exceptions include Mauritania and Sudan).(15) For instance, under Sections 9 and 15 of the South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the State may not unfairly discriminate on grounds which include religion, conscience, belief or culture, as well as ethnic or social origin. It also guarantees that everyone is owed these rights.(16) In Sections 30 and 31, everyone has the right to the cultural life of their choice including to practise their religion and to form cultural and religious associations.(17) Under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992, marijuana (known colloquially as dagga) is listed as an undesirable dependence-producing substance and it is therefore illegal to manufacture, supply, possess or use it.(18) Another arm of the rights framework in South Africa is commissions - intended to strengthen democracy - that monitor the implementation of these rights and can assist local communities in instances where these rights are breached. As a case in point, in 2012 the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) published a report examining the human rights challenges faced by the Rastafari Community in South Africa and made recommendations to various government departments to address these challenges.(19)

Managing misconceptions

Given the comprehensive international, regional and domestic legal coverage - and despite the specificity with which discrimination based on religion is defined as a human rights violation under Articles 3 and 4 of the DEAFIDBRB - the regularity with which human rights violations are being committed against Rastafarians is surprising.

The first possible explanation for this, alluded to in the previous section, is the sometimes vague distinction between Rastafari as a religion versus an identity. This distinction necessarily impacts on whether a Rastafarian’s rights have been violated. The historian Ennis B. Edmonds makes a good point, in Rastafari: A very short introduction, when he states that, “The adoption or adaptation of Rastafari ranges from a simple parading of the trappings of the movement to a serious political, cultural and spiritual engagement.”(20) Indeed, in many parts of Africa people are drawn to the Reggae music and its messages of universal dignity and equality of human beings that is associated with Rastafari.(21) For young men (in cities and tourist hotspots especially), the Rastafari identity may be a source of comfort and empowerment to the powerlessness they feel when facing the frustrating realities of youth unemployment and poverty. Many of these people may also use marijuana and alcohol in a recreational, sometimes excessive, fashion.

On the other hand there exist Rastafarian communities that follow strict Rastafari religious practices, such as the observance of an Ital (natural and vegetarian) diet including abstinence from non-natural drugs such as alcohol; the non-cutting of hair or wearing of dreadlocks (as commanded in Leviticus 21:5 of the Bible); the adherence to religious holidays such as the coronation of the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (considered the reincarnation of Jesus Christ) on 2 November; and the use of marijuana, in moderation, as a ritual tool to achieve spiritual communion with Jah (derived from the Hebrew word ‘Jehovah’ meaning God).(22) Therefore, there may be confusion by law enforcement officers when interrogating a ‘Rastafarian-looking’ person who may have abused marijuana or alcohol - a public safety issue under Article 1 of the DEAFIDBRB - from one who is carrying a small amount strictly for religious purposes, a freedom to practice religion issue under Article 18 of the UDHR, Articles 18 and 19 of the ICCPR, similar articles of the ACHPR and sections of most domestic constitutions.

A second, and related, explanation is the often negative connotations associated with dreadlocks and marijuana. Many people find that dreadlocks look dirty and assume that those who wear dreadlocks are also drug users.(23) But the history of dreadlocks in African societies is ambiguous. The criminal assumption towards Rastafarian-looking youth in urban places may be reinforced by the association of dreadlocks with, for instance, violent rebel groups in rural locations. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported on abuses committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group active in north-eastern Congo, some of whom are identified by their “long” and “rasta-like” hair.(24)

But dreadlocks also hold a deep historical and political symbolism for African liberation.(25) The Mau Mau revolutionaries in Kenya, who fought for independence from British colonial rule, wore dreadlocks as a sign of their resistance and a source of solidarity.(26) Also, many spirit mediums (often important figureheads in African societies) sport dreadlocks - an indication that dreadlocks are not just a foreign export.(27) Moreover, dreadlocks are emerging into mainstream fashion as a convenient, cost effective and sometimes healthy alternative to maintaining hair for both men and women.(28)

Dreadlocks are perhaps the most identifiable feature of a Rastafarian and, as such, mark them as easy targets for discrimination. Take for example the sentiment of a Tanzanian Rastafarian, gained through personal conversation, as he crossed (legally) the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa. He felt he was discriminated against when unfairly targeted for interrogation where he was forced to shave his hair before being allowed to continue his journey.(29) Such cases, however, may also be exacerbated by the “structural xenophobia”(30) in South Africa that leads to violence being targeted at migrants. These migrants, unable to attain employment in the formal economy, are often forced to live in large informal settlements.(31) Nevertheless, the case of the Tanzanian Rastafarian is also a clear breach of Article 2 of the ICESCR regarding non-discrimination on ethnic or social origins.

A third proposed explanation is the means by which some Rastafarians separate themselves from the rest of society, either because they feel marginalised or as an active attempt to remove themselves from the ‘corrupting’ influence of modern societies (a right that they are entitled to under Article 15 of the ICESCR).(32) A key tenant of Rastafari belief is the rejection of ‘Babylon’ - a term used to represent the negative forces of colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the inequalities of power and privilege.(33) At its more extended interpretation, Rastafarians “...effectively delegitimize the vaunted institutions of the Western world that have been lauded as the zenith of human social and cultural achievements.”(34) Examples of Rastafarian communities seeking to be self-sustaining and separate from the countries in which they are located include Shashamane in Ethiopia, the Rasta Village in Côte d’Ivoire, and the Federation of Rastas in Congo. Thus some Rastafarian communities are more vulnerable to situations where they are likely to come into friction with government and corporate authorities, for example, regarding land disputes or personal and community freedoms versus state laws. In these cases human rights abuses are more likely to occur.

Identifying issues

The above analysis raises a number of issues with regards to mediating, from a human rights angle, such misconceptions of Rastafarians.

The first is where to draw the distinction between cases of public discipline and religious freedom. For example: between banning the possession of marijuana (even only small amounts for religious purposes) and the wearing of dreadlocks (such as in school) on cultural grounds, and the right to practice these tenants of the Rastafari faith on religious freedom grounds. Regarding dreadlocks, Doron Isaacs raises a noteworthy point when he questions whether religious justifications (such as the guarantees made under Article 5 of the DEAFIDBRB) are needed to protect expressions of non-religious opinion or conscience that coincidentally double as religious: for instance in the situation of a non-Rastafrian school boy choosing to wear dreadlocks.(35) In which case, there are serious implications for the limitations that the exercise of human rights law might be facing when defining the difference between religious freedom, cultural expression and personal choice. Regarding marijuana, the South African and Rastafarian lawyer Garreth Prince argues that the South African Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992 - which prohibits marijuana - brands all Rastafarians as criminals and places them in a situation where they have to make a “...constitutionally intolerable choice between obedience of the law and observance of our [Rastafari] way of life.”(36) Thus Rastafarians are caught between different sets of laws, which they perceive as contradictory, both within the domestic constitution and across international legal codes.

The second issue to consider is the paradox between participatory democracy and people who choose to exclude themselves from such a model of social organisation. The making and amending of laws, including the implementation of human rights, requires the representation of some form of collective of people - be it social activists, community organisations or trade unions. This begs the question of how human rights violations can be addressed in Rastafari communities that have chosen to exclude themselves from the structures of government and the law. It also raises the question of whether or not Rastafari communities have the freedom to exclude themselves from state and international laws, and at what point they are once again covered by state and international protection where human rights violations have occurred. No doubt this is a dilemma of all communities campaigning for a heightened degree of autonomy within an already sovereign nation state.

A final point to consider is the responsibility of the media to giving more accurate portrayals of the Rastafari community. The CRL Rights Commission calls on the South African media “...to desist from stereotyping the Rasta community as a ganja [marijuana]-smoking community...” and rather portray it as sacred way of life, and not just as fashionable.(37) It also recommends that broadcasters should invite experts when discussing the Rastafari way of life in order to give them the opportunity to reflect and provide true information about Rastafari.(38) However, Article 19 of the UDHR also assures freedom of expression and opinion through the media. Thus, and this again is the case in all nations, there is a delicate balance between state control of slander and state repression of the freedom of expression.

Concluding comments

Identifying areas where domestic laws leave citizens vulnerable to human rights abuses is often a contentious issue. It is even more so when the distinctions between religious and cultural, as well as private and public, freedoms are debated or distorted. The cases of human rights abuses being targeted at Rastafarians, which is also under-documented, is an indication that more should be done to protect them.

Governments must continue to ensure that justice is achievable for Rastafarians who have been subject to human rights violations. Radebe’s success at the high court in South Africa, readmitted to school with her dreadlocks, is a case in point. But in countries, such as Congo, where legal frameworks and commissions are not as comprehensive, such institutions must be strengthened. A crucial element to raising the profile of Rastafarian’s rights is through awareness-raising in school and the media which, moreover, must aspire to provide respectful and accurate information.

The historical and political message on injustice that is embedded within Rastafari Reggae music has long been a source of inspiration for African liberation and existential comfort. The time has come for a new avenue of Reggae inspiration - one that incorporates the issues of ‘downpression’ and ‘transgression’ into a human rights legal framework that can achieve equality for all, and set some more captives free.


(1) Elizabeth Button is a Research Associate with CAI and has an interest in African history with a focus on East and North East Africa, and the Kiswahili language. She is currently working at Camfed International in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Contact Elizabeth through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ). Edited by Kate Morgan. 
(2) In 1982 Salisbury became known as Harare and in 1987 Robert Mugabe replaced the head of state position Prime Minister with that of Executive President.
(3) Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Exodus (Exodus [Studio Album])’, 3 June 1977, Island Records: London.
(4) ‘South Sudan: Improve accountability for security force abuses’, Human Rights Watch, 8 February 2011, http://www.hrw.org; ‘Time to end legal double standards’, The Star, 28 September 2012, http://www.the-star.co.ke; Kouassi, S., ‘Evicted Rastafarians in Ivory Coast village feel cheated’, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 28 July 2012, http://www.rnw.nl.
(5) Issacs, D., ‘Get up, stand up, fight like Lerato’, GroundUp, 20 May 2013, http://groundup.org.za.
(6) ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, 10 December 1948, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.un.org.
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’, 3 January 1976, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.ohchr.org.
(9) Ibid.
(10) ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’, 23 March 1976, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.ohchr.org.
(11) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief’, 25 November 1981, United Nations General Assembly: New York, http://www.un.org.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights’, 21 October 1986, Organisation of African Unity: Addis Ababa, http://www.achpr.org.
(15) ‘International Religious Freedom Report for 2012’, 20 May 2013, United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour: Washington DC, http://www.state.gov.
(16) ‘Constitution of the Republic of South Africa’, 1996, 4 February 1997, Republic of South Africa: Cape Town http://www.info.gov.za.
(17) Ibid.
(18) ‘Drugs and Trafficking Act No. 140 of 1992’, 30 April 1993, Republic of South Africa: Cape Town, http://www.dsd.gov.za.
(19) ‘Challenges faced by the Rastafari community in South Africa’, CRL Rights Commission, 2012, http://crlcommission.org.za.
(20) Edmonds, E., 2012. Rastafari: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
(21) Edmonds, E., 2003. Rastafari: From outcasts to culture bearers. Oxford University Press: New York.
(22) ‘Challenges faced by the Rastafari community in South Africa’, CRL Rights Commission, 2012, http://crlcommission.org.za.
(23) Asiimwe, S., ‘These days, dreadlocks are for convenience’, Rwanda Focus, 26 November 2012, http://focus.rw.
(24) ‘Trail of death: LRA atrocities in northeastern Congo’, Human Rights Watch, 2010, http://www.hrw.org.
(25) Sakufi-Rumongi, K., ‘Reggae music: A soundtrack to African liberation’, The New Times, 3 January 2013, http://www.newtimes.co.rw.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Guyamombe, I., ‘This is just a warning!’, The Herald, 24 January 2013, http://www.herald.co.zw.
(28) Asiimwe, S., ‘These days, dreadlocks are for convenience’, Rwanda Focus, 26 November 2012, http://focus.rw.
(29) Personal communication, Anonymous, City guide for Dar es Salaam, 28 August 2009.
(30) Abdi, C., ‘Xenophobia and its discontents in South Africa’, Aljazeera, 18 June 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Kouassi, S., ‘Evicted Rastafarians in Ivory Coast village feel cheated’, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 28 July 2012, http://www.rnw.nl.
(33) Edmonds, E., 2012. Rastafari: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Issacs, D., ‘Get up, stand up, fight like Lerato’, GroundUp, 20 May 2013, http://groundup.org.za.
(36) Samodien, L., ‘Rasta lawyer puts dagga laws on trial’, IOL news, 9 July 2013, http://www.iol.co.za.
(37) ‘Challenges faced by the Rastafari community in South Africa’, CRL Rights Commission, 2012, http://crlcommission.org.za.
(38) Ibid.


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