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The pursuit of social justice has become more critical than ever, but there are mountains to climb


Professor Thuli Madonsela is Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University.

It is only with the support and collaboration of government, civil society, big business, academia and every ordinary South African and global citizen, that we will be able to make the ideal of social justice a lived reality for everyone in South Africa. We owe this to all of us for peace and sustainable development.

Mountain climbing is one of my favourite hobbies. The chance to enjoy the crisp mountain air, to marvel at the magnificence of Mother Nature, and to share this with friends and new acquaintances is something I value and cherish.  

I must hasten to say that I have the Nelson Mandela Foundation and its partnership with the Imbumba Foundation on the #Trek4Mandela — #Caring4Girls initiative to thank for reacquainting me with this childhood pleasure. 

In recent months I have tackled several hikes and climbs. This includes twice summiting Kilimanjaro, the last one on Mandela Day a few weeks ago. This excruciatingly challenging climb tests your resilience and commitment. As you summit one peak you realise there are more to climb and more summits to achieve till you reach the last peak.  

It tests your mind, body and spirit, and you only succeed because of the support of the members of your climbing party. This has made me conclude that not only does it take a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to achieve the phenomenal feats that tend to be attributed to single individuals.

I believe that, to a great extent, the same can be said for the importance of the pursuit of social justice.  

We must keep pushing, we must persevere, and every time we reach a target, we realise there is yet another target to achieve. This has taught me to appreciate the Tanzanian value of pole pole, which includes appreciating that as long as you are headed in the right direction, you need not crucify yourself for your slow pace. The Japanese call it Kaizen

Let me explain.

I joined Stellenbosch University nearly four years ago with a clear mandate — my task was to develop a globally respected social justice research and training hub. My team and I set about putting together the Office of the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice, which you see today, and we have been blessed to have wonderful heroes and ambassadors join our work over the years.

We have developed and released papers and arranged several events, conferences and deliberations to unpack the various aspects of social justice. These events have ranged in size and scope, from large conferences to smaller lunchtime Social Justice Cafés. 

The golden thread running through it all has been the working definition underpinning the research of the Chair, namely that social justice is about the equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms regardless of human diversity reflected in the fair, just and equitable distribution of all opportunities, resources, benefits, privileges and burdens in a society or group and between societies.  

This thread influences everything we arrange, and it will again be visible when we gather for two important flagship events in October.  

This year sees the third instalment of our Annual Social Justice Summit, which will pick up from the decisions and resolutions adopted during last year’s gathering.  

Our inaugural summit in 2019 adopted the Social Justice M-Plan, an integrated, ground-up civil society plan that seeks to coordinate systematic and integrated academic, business and broader civil society input to support government efforts towards ending poverty and breaking the back of inequality.  

In 2020, the summit appointed a team of committed men and women to be our Council of Social Justice Champions, to oversee the management and the implementation of all aspects of the Social Justice M-Plan and the crowdfunding elements contained in the M-Fund.

The 2021 instalment of our summit will deliberate the progress made in the implementation of our Social Justice M-Plan and discuss what else we need to do as a collective to eliminate the glaring inequalities we still face in our nation.  

South Africa is widely acknowledged to be the most unequal society in the world, a situation that was both highlighted and exacerbated when the Covid-19 pandemic struck us last year.

A question we asked in this regard in 2020 will again be asked at our 2021 summit. It is a question that remains as relevant now as it was last year and makes our deliberations as important.  

We will ask delegates to discuss what difference the regulations and legislation implemented in response to the pandemic made to the lived realities of our people. Did it change things for the better, or make things worse?

Our summit will be preceded by the 2nd Annual International Social Justice Conference.  

This global platform will bring together social justice researchers and other stakeholders to reflect on advancing equality and ending poverty in economies globally, with a special focus on progress, shortfalls and prospects regarding law and policy responses to the pandemic, and the Sustainable Development Goals on the African continent.  

So, even though we are aiming to bring in policymakers, researchers and academics from all over the world, we want to also focus on what is happening on the continent and to see how one can use the lessons learnt in Africa, for Africa. 

The conference will also explore the role of economic inequality and sustaining peace, stability and the rule of law in emerging democracies. In the end, it all boils down to the rule of law. If we do not adhere to the rule of law, if we do not ensure access to justice, then we will not be successful in creating a society where everyone can flourish. It would mean that social justice would ultimately be a dream that could never become a reality.  

If I may return to my mountain climbing analogy from earlier — when we gather in October, we will get the chance to look back at the progress of our climb thus far and take stock.  

I hope we will be able to look back on the work that has been done to address those policies that are indifferent to the difference and disadvantage in our society. We will reflect if there has been progress on social impact-conscious policy design. It is only with the support and collaboration of government, civil society, big business, academia and every ordinary South African and global citizen, that we will be able to make the ideal of social justice a lived reality for everyone in South Africa.   

We owe this to all of us for peace and sustainable development.

My hope is that when we gather for our two days of deliberations in October, we will be able to take several strides towards that next summit on our path to the peak.  

Let us be under no illusion, it is a challenging and difficult climb we have ahead of us, but it is one worthy of our efforts. DM 

Professor Madonsela and the Council for Social Justice Champions have convened the 2nd Annual International Social Justice Conference and 3rd Annual Social Justice Summit, on Monday, 11 and Tuesday, 12 October 2021. Find information at


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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Social Justice.

    Until the 2nd word has real meaning, the 1st will remain completely unattainable.

  • Ion Williams says:

    You cannot achieve social justice as long as you don’t know what justice or a injustice is. It appears that justice is the protection and preservation of what one values, that seems to fit the bill quite well. So that begs the question what fundamentally is value. It appears that fundamentally time is the universal definition of value for every conscious mind. We all value our time, we trade it, when someone employs you they are paying you for your time. You use it to do things, create art or value and if others appreciate it they will pay you for it. Fundamentally when you think about it it’s the one thing we all have in a finite amount. It’s a asset that universally defines value, we are all born with and we die with none, we all spend it at a constant rate our whole lives. It appears that the proof of time defining value is that when you are born your time has no value to anyone except yourself and those who have already invested their time in you, your parents. They have a duty to make you and your behavior acceptable to the society or culture in which they intend to raise you in. It is their duty, it was their choice to have you, no ones else’s. The only way to do that is for them to invest time in you, in some way shape or form, to teach you to do stuff, once you have learned to talk and communicate coherently you need to start investing time in yourself to teach, or educate yourself. This makes your time more valuable for others and they will pay you more for your time

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    When the poor strart showing that they too have a social responsibility by not breeding beyond their means, I will don this cap gladly. In the meantime, I support the children who had no choice when they were born into these unforgiving and brutal circumstances.

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