Wealth gap: Everyone can be a winner

2015-03-08 15:00

Not all equality is equal. There are two kinds: formal, which treats everyone the same under the law, and substantive, which takes the differences between people into account and seeks to put everyone on the same footing.

For the first time, after queuing together for the 1994 election, all South Africans achieved formal equality.

In 1996, this formal equality was officially sealed with the adoption of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.

It is spelt out in the first lines of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights: “This?...?is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.”

But the bar for substantive equality is set much higher.

Imagine three people, of any or no particular race, trying to look over a high wall blocking a beautiful view of a future South Africa where racism and social disparities are history and we have, finally, learnt to respect and even like, if not love, each other.

The first person is tall and can see this utopia in the distance without any special effort.

The second is of medium height and can see just over if he stretches while standing on tiptoe.

The third is short and sees nothing but the wall blocking his view.

With formal equality all three are treated equally, which leaves the tall person enjoying the view, the one in the middle managing but struggling, and the short one – read poor – missing out completely.

Although the same treatment for all may aim to present a similar view of the playing field over the wall, it ignores the fact that people have different strengths and abilities.

Treated equally, and with nothing but their natural attributes, the experience of the three varies from bliss to deprivation.

With substantive equality, both the need and the answer are obvious: two of the trio need help.

The solution: give the two who are struggling boxes to stand on to put all three on the same, if not level, playing field.

The result: real equality, or justice.

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