Opinionista Shelagh Gastrow 27 September 2018

Can we have social justice in a divided society?

South African society is fast becoming more polarised, especially around issues relating to key government policy positions such as land and the national health insurance. Matched with revelations around endemic corruption in government and the perceived abandonment of the concept of non-racialism by the ruling party, polarisation is becoming entrenched along South Africa’s fault lines of race and class. It appears that absolutely nothing is being done to avoid this polarisation and it almost seems as though nobody really cares.

The question therefore is – can we achieve social justice in a divided society? Should social justice not be seen in conjunction with a growth in social cohesion across the country? Why do we always choose the most alienating ways to engage, rather than finding ways to come together? Fighting against something always means that there must be an enemy on the other side and this word is used both by politicians and civil society activists. Do we seriously believe that other South Africans are “the enemy”? Is this what we want to achieve – real polarisation that may go too far and become irreversible? If we envisage a time in the future when the enemy has been vanquished, what future are we looking at? It is all very well to say that this is just rhetoric, but people targeted as “the enemy” will eventually respond.

In a recent article entitled The Political Mob, the State and Accountability, Adam Habib pointed out how we have become inured to the “political mob” enjoined by Twitter to contribute to retribution to anyone in the firing line. Dragging mobs to people’s private homes or into stores has become acceptable political action and as Habib points out, “these kinds of actions do not enhance democracy and accountability. They undermine it because it is promoting mob rule and mob justice”. It is no wonder that mob looting of foreign shops or the closure of major freeways are merely “observed” by the police. Yet we tolerate this. At what point will we wake up and discover this has gone too far and cannot be reeled in and at what point will we wake up and discover that the mob is not always right?

Political mobs are, however, an outcome of what has become acceptable bullying and shaming behaviour in our body politic, but also in our civil society. In an article entitled No justice without love: why activism must be more generous, Frances Lee, an inter-sectional activist from the US, writes about her “concern for the future of our movements”. She points out that social justice movements were “originally about freeing marginalized people from oppressive institutions and social structure” but have now become “imbued with their own narrow framework of morality”. She offers a critique of the current social justice sector where “fear and shame are regularly used to control other people’s behaviour and shut down contentious discussions”. People are accused of not being radical enough or too privileged. She points out that identity is being used in a way to separate people rather than to “create coalitions”.

This marginalisation is also evident in South Africa. The sexual harassment cases that have emerged out of this sector only managed to thrive in an organisational culture that either ignored or accommodated bullying and shaming behaviours. Facebook posts that personally insult and intimidate others who might differ on specific organisational positions are common.

Why do people who should know better feel comfortable engaging in insulting slanging matches with people they do not even know? What makes a young activist feel comfortable in attacking a respected progressive political figure in a public place like Facebook?

This can only emerge from the culture of organisations that feel they are the sole representatives of the moral high ground. The impact is for many to shut up and disengage. Nobody wants to be “named” in a social media post. It is important for social justice activists to examine their behaviour and their intellectual engagement with others. According to Lee this means “prioritising the building of healthy relationships with ourselves and with others, choosing alternatives to rage, and honouring ourselves as whole beings”. In South Africa this is more critical if we are seeking a future with common values and alignment.

South African activism has a long history against oppression and subjugation, yet during the 1980s it embraced non-racialism, inclusivity and dialogue. As a result we managed to create our own future focused on a unique and modern Constitution.

The constitutional principles we adopted meant some concessions were made by all stakeholders, but this was a framework with which everyone could live. Yet, we are only at the beginning of our democratic road and if we are to move forward with a desire for social justice, we need to carefully explore what tactics we use and whether these tactics marginalise others or whether we are on a road to building social cohesion. Without the latter, our future looks bleak. History shows there is no winner takes all. DM

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