Social justice is not just a fairytale

2012-09-01 13:48

South Africans must realise they have the power to hold their leaders to account.

Once upon a time there was a country whose people were held in a form of slavery for hundreds of years because of their skin colour.

They were denied education and opportunity, made to work far from their families and treated with contempt by the white people who had economic power and guns.

After a long struggle, the people freed themselves.

At last their beautiful country was theirs.

They passed a Constitution that promised to treat all people equally forever after and to make sure that everybody would have houses, education and health.

But, after a few years, many of the poor discovered they were getting poorer.

A few previously poor people were suddenly fabulously rich.

The newspapers called this “inequality”.

People began to invent names for some of these people, like “hyenas” and “tenderpreneurs”.

As the poor looked on, they saw the rich people in fancy cars, huge houses and travelling the world.

This, while most of them continued to live in squalor.

As their disappointment and anger grew they began to ask themselves some questions: what should we do if we discover that some of the people who took over our country, in the name of our liberation party and the people, are gangsters?

What should we do if we realise thieves have dressed themselves in the noble clothes of the best of our heroes and taken advantage of our trust to try to confuse us?

What must we do if it’s true that, as some people say, criminals have exploited the democratic space created by the Constitution to steal from the poor; or if politicians have diverted the huge resources intended to end poverty, to provide health and education, into their own pockets?

Conditions got worse.

Is it really conceivable, they asked, that a handful of people could take advantage of the blighted human legacy of apartheid, particularly the vulnerability created by the denial of education to millions, to occupy top government jobs just to enrich themselves?

Would they really exploit weaknesses in systems of government to steal freely from the state’s coffers?

Could it possibly be that some black people would cynically exploit the ongoing selfishness of the majority of white people to hide their own selfishness?

Would they really take advantage of the unwillingness of the mainly white holders of economic power to share wealth and increase opportunity for the black poor to mask their own grab for resources?

What could the people do when the handful who asked these questions were vilified by being called “counter-revolutionaries” or “liberals”?

And what should they do when those who refused to be silenced were intimidated, sometimes even murdered, by those who felt their bank accounts were under threat?

Could it be that people who used to be good – even heroes – could become bad – even criminals?

And how was it that bad people, who had never had anything to do with the liberation struggle, were now wearing its colours to hide their misdeeds?
Was it conceivable that those who called themselves “communists”, who invoked the name of a wonderful revolutionary in almost every speech, could be using the language of socialism simply to mask a lifestyle of capitalism?

Some found that long ago, Karl Marx said “material conditions determine consciousness”.

How, then, could the people who claimed to be his followers justify expensive cars and huge salaries?

How could they claim to be carrying forward the flag of revolutionary socialism?

At last the people looked deep into their souls.

They asked how they could replace greed and self-interest with moral principle and solidarity.

Person by person, they decided not to trust anyone with power any more – all politicians would be made to regain their trust, and they decided to regard all politicians as corrupt, until they proved they were not.

Lawyers called this a reverse onus, but the people insisted.

How could they believe glorious, big words, when the same people they came from overlooked the education of children, even denied them textbooks to learn from?

They asked what the young people who, many years ago, had given up their lives for freedom would have thought of the abuse of their names on so-called Youth Day.

They looked at the supreme law of the Constitution to see if it had any answers and they found that it did.

It said: “Government is based on the will of the people.” It said: “All citizens are equally entitled to the rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship.”

It talked of social justice, fundamental human rights and equality.
Henceforth, they cried: “We will insist on accountability, we will learn more about the power we have been given by the Constitution and enforce it.”

They decided that unless they did this they would suffer forevermore and their children would too.

They loved their country – its traditions, people, landscape and literature.

They saw the writing was on the wall.

But it was not too late. They resolved to act.

»Heywood is the executive director of Section27, a social justice advocacy group

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