Defend Truth


Why South Africa may go to hell: Our social justice record on women and children is appalling


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

What we do and think as a society does not actively foreground social justice and how we deal with issues affecting women and children, particularly issues such as discrimination and gender-based violence.

World Day of Social Justice was celebrated on 20 February 2021, and this year’s theme was “A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy”.

“World Day of Social Justice 2021 — who cares?” read the title to an article by Mark Heywood in Maverick Citizen. Indeed, who cares and why should anybody care?

Perhaps the question should be put differently: Why should we care about social justice in South Africa? After all, the concept of justice has been discussed throughout different times and locations using primarily political-philosophy lenses, approaches that often do not speak to each other. Before you misconstrue my opening remarks, let me confess that I care about social justice. In the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place.”

Our preoccupation with social justice should also take into account the UN Sustainable Development Goals 16 (SDG16), which call for peace, justice and strong institutions. The achievement of SDG16 pivots on reaching several targets by the year 2030. These targets include the need to reduce all forms of violence and put an end to ill-treatment, exploitation and human trafficking; promote the rule of law and guarantee equal access to justice; reduce the flow of illicit finance and arms, corruption and bribery in all forms; provide access to legal identity for all people through birth registrations; and guarantee public access to information and the protection of basic freedoms through national laws and international accords.

In light of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2020, the political and social ills the SDG16 is attempting to address have worsened amid Covid-19. In many African countries, including South Africa, many of the SDG16 targets will not be reached by 2030. It is doubtful if they will be reached in the next 50 years. From the perspective of women and children, and victims of gender-based violence (GBV), one can argue that there was little to celebrate during World Day of Social Justice.

What we do and think as a society does not actively foreground social justice and how we deal with issues affecting women and children, particularly issues such as discrimination and GBV. The 2020 South African crime statistics reported by Police Minister Bheki Cele on the eve of World Social Justice Day revealed that there is no cause for celebration by women and children, and victims of violence — a total of 15,595 sexual offences committed, with rape making up 12,218 of this number; sexual assault 2,390; attempted sexual offences 625; and contact sexual offences 362.

In addition to the increase in murder, rape and assault, the victims of GBV are revictimised by law enforcement agencies or subjected to secondary victimisation: “I received so many calls… to say police are not treating well the cases of rape and the cases of sexual abuse,” said Cele. There is virtually nowhere to run for the victims of GBV.

The minister by his admission – express or implied – acknowledges that the South African Police Service has to some extent failed in ensuring social justice in policing and law enforcement. After hearing Cele, the sense I got (and perhaps the sense anti-GBV organisations and activists are getting) was that social justice remains an abstraction on how the government holds the idea of social justice for women and children, with sometimes profound lack of clarity on its prioritisation.

Our children too have not been spared the hardship of the world and the country we live in. The UN Sustainable Development Goals Report notes, for instance, that “2.2 billion people around the world still lacked safely managed drinking water, including 785 million without basic drinking water… 4.2 billion people worldwide still lacked safely managed sanitation, including 2 billion who were without basic sanitation. Of these, 673 million people practised open defecation.”  

In South Africa, school children in rural black communities are dying in pit latrines. It would seem that the horrific death of Michael Komape in 2014, which highlighted the dangerous ablution facilities in our schools, did not fully appeal to the education authorities. In some schools, such as Mangelengele Primary School near Tsomo in the Eastern Cape, our children and their teachers still have to practise open-veld defecation, dehumanised and their dignity stripped away.

At some schools such as the Mvuso Junior Secondary School in Cofimvaba, the government made promises of proper ablution facilities, which turned out to be difficult to fulfil. As if the plight of our children is not enough, the majority of the children in South Africa are living in poverty-stricken homes. I am indebted to Christi Nortier, who provided a pithy analysis of the South African Child Gauge report published yearly by the Children’s Institute of the University of Cape Town. The report, launched two days before World Social Justice Day on 18 February 2021, attests to the fact that as a country we are failing to combat the unabating scourge of child poverty and inequalities visited upon children.

Speaking specifically to this year’s theme, “A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy”, it must be acknowledged that children in South Africa have and continue to suffer inequalities in the digital economy. Covid-19 and the recourse to digital platforms and resources to enable learning at our schools and universities exposed the long-standing inequalities in our communities.

The biggest obstacles to students’ engagement with remote learning are network connectivity, data and not having appropriate devices for studying. Some other challenges students faced during this time include problems with electricity, a lack of study space, not having adequate knowledge and skills to optimally make use of devices and new study platforms, and feeling isolated or disconnected from lecturers and peers.

For example, learners and students without internet and computing facilities found it hard and challenging to complete their academic year successfully. A recent survey report commissioned by the Department of Higher Education and Training “to explore how students are accessing and using learning materials” revealed some of the inequalities of the digital economy. The benefits of studying through technology notwithstanding, the report, published in December 2020, noted several challenges.

“The biggest obstacles to students’ engagement with remote learning are network connectivity, data and not having appropriate devices for studying. Some other challenges students faced during this time include problems with electricity, a lack of study space, not having adequate knowledge and skills to optimally make use of devices and new study platforms, and feeling isolated or disconnected from lecturers and peers.”

The situation of these students, possibly many from historically disadvantaged communities with no social justice and who suffered under the digital divide, was worsened by existing disadvantages such as no access to electricity.

There can be no social justice in situations like these. “If how we regard and treat children is a litmus test for the strength of our civilisation and social justice, then we are very uncivilised and socially unjust, indeed,” argues Mark Heywood in Maverick Citizen. This sentiment should be shared by the Eastern Cape schools still facing serious infrastructure challenges. Let us accept the truth that our morality as a nation is on display and is tested daily as children suffer horrible violations and unimaginable hardships in our communities.

My question is: What world does the current South African government and leaders want to leave to our women and children? Do they want to leave children and women in a world without social justice? A world with a legacy that is morally reprehensible for our leaders?

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant theologian and fierce opponent of Hitler’s Holocaust, “the ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children”.

Perhaps we will as a nation be going to hell, as an undelivered sermon script by Dr Martin Luther King said about America. According to a 2018 article by Wright Edelman, “The State of America’s Children”, the day before his assassination Dr King called his mother to give her his next Sunday’s sermon title: “Why America May Go to Hell.”

“He warned that the country is destined for hell if it does not use ‘her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life’,” she wrote.

Despite all the talk about social justice of late, it is clear that our country is still at an infant stage on how in practical terms the vision of social justice is invoked to influence issues such as sustainable development, equal opportunities for women and children, and affording the constitutionally mandated protection to women and children.

Much must change in South Africa if we are serious about social justice for women and children. As Robyn Porteus wrote in the Mail & Guardian, “If things are to change — and they must — then we need real, actionable and measurable interventions. Not because elections are looming. Not because another politician wants their time in the limelight. But because, when it comes to gender-based violence, it is a matter of life and death.”

Still, as a country, we specialise in talking against GBV but doing nothing with a prohibitive and chilling effect. The change will only come if the government can talk less and implement more. President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced the dawn of progressive legislation as part of his government’s commitment to properly responding to GBV.

Without tangible results, all these interventions are useless despite the reformist spirit espoused by our besieged judiciary, and the huge efforts by civil society organisations against GBV. We must accept that nothing tangible can be achieved in addressing the plight of women and children and extending to them the true social justice they constitutionally deserve if our institutions are not strong enough to stand as support structures.

For example, institutions involved in the fight against GBV and the protection of women and children generally must be those that are victim-centric, efficient and effective. They should be institutions having a governance framework founded on equality, ethics, transparency and accountability. They must support a culture of zero tolerance towards corruption and abuse of state resources.

Unfortunately, State Capture and malfeasance at several of our state institutions tells a different story. Allegations of corruption that erode access to social justice in a broader context have now become the leading stories for our public discourse (read here, here and here, for example).

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr said. We cannot look the other way when it comes to women and children.

As Elie Wiesel said in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

We need as a country to look inward and claim back the legacy that Nelson Mandela left behind before it was derailed. The legacy that centred the country and the world on social justice, and on all the other human rights issues, to create better societies for all. DM


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