This article highlights the ‘paradox’ of human rights discourse in our contemporary world, showing that it is increasingly framed as both a liberating tool and an oppressive hegemonic ideology of the West. It draws on the South African context to suggest that this country’s own ambiguous experiences, successes and challenges with human rights require a deeper acknowledgement of this paradox in our current times as a starting point. The Sudanese legal scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im offers a mediating way beyond these binary idolisations or denunciations of human rights with three specific strategies recommended in the practical pursuit of a grassroots human rights culture. His call for the active engagement of religious and cultural resources as essential assets for more effective contemporary practice of human rights offer a unique contribution that can help human rights concretise their ‘liberating promise’. These strategies are then appropriated for South Africa in its unfinished and urgent task of developing a human rights culture from below.