Students from the University of the Witwatersrand demonstrate on the campus. Picture: WIKUS DE WET/AFP
Students from the University of the Witwatersrand demonstrate on the campus. Picture: WIKUS DE WET/AFP

As we approach World Social Justice Day on February 20, one’s natural instinct is to reflect on the state of social justice in SA, Africa and the world. At home, the reflective moment is also inspired by the fact that in April we will celebrate 25 years of democracy.

So what is the state of social justice — and why should we care?

The second part is the easiest to answer. Advancing social justice is, after all, about delivering on our constitutional promise. In its preamble, the constitution promises to provide a foundation to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights".

It further promises to "improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of every person".

So social justice, which is about the fair and just distribution of opportunities, resources, privileges and burdens in society, is a constitutional imperative.

Why did the architects of our constitution and democracy consider it necessary to build a society anchored in social justice? As I have said before, including in this column, we leave others behind at our own peril.

If we want a society where we all have a vested interest, everyone should feel that membership of this society and complying with its rules is a rewarding undertaking. Today many are increasingly left behind, with no social mobility — despite playing by the rules.

Too many people are living lives devoid of human dignity due to abject poverty, which is at 64.2% among black people, 55.5% among the population as a whole.

Today many are increasingly left behind, with no social mobility — despite playing by the rules

As I write this column, there is a protest at one of SA’s premier universities — Wits — where a key issue is poverty-based academic exclusions and hardships that have led to students sleeping in libraries. How on earth is this happening 25 years into democracy?

We don’t need rocket science to understand the anger and resentment that comes with poverty-related exclusions from opportunities for people who have played by the rules — people who worked hard to earn their place in institutions, including our universities.

The fact that education, as my mother used to say, is meant to be the greatest equaliser only makes this insult worse.

A lesson from the university crisis is that social injustice, particularly involving unfair distribution of opportunities, is a huge factor behind the fractured world we keep moaning about.

Poverty prevents others from entering the race and, even when they can, they have to carry so much baggage (like sleeping in libraries) that their odds of excelling are small.

The response is understandable. The danger is that this can escalate, as violence is the language of the disempowered.

Haves and have-nots

This exclusion can also become a breeding ground for demagogues who build election campaigns on glib promises like those of Socrates’s allegorical sweet merchant, offering sweets as an antidote for serious illnesses. Before we realise it, democracy is derailed. This is the essence of our fractured world: the battle between the haves and the have-nots. This is what informs the UN sustainable development goals initiative.

Several World Bank, IMF and World Economic Forum studies show countries that invest in and harness the contribution of all their people have better sustainable economic growth and stability. Though mostly based on gender inclusiveness, these studies have lessons for other forms of human diversity.

So, we must remember that it is in our hands, and our interests, to ensure the next chapter of humanity is more socially just. The constitutional promise is something we must all deliver upon. Any other route will be taken at our peril.

Madonsela is the chair for social justice at Stellenbosch University