Guest Column

Are social justice organisations the only hope for true justice?

2018-08-13 14:18
(Picture: Theana Breugem)

(Picture: Theana Breugem) (Theana Breugem)

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Zusipe Batyi

With the increase in the unemployment rate to 27.2%, according to Statistics South Africa, and wide-ranging poverty, the South African government seems to be deliberately closing its ears to the needs of poor black people. 

That not enough people have been lifted out of poverty – and in SA poverty is correlated with blackness – is an indication that government economic and education and health and similar policies are not doing what they are intended to. On the other hand, civil society has actively supported and demanded better lives for impoverished people. 

Based on the recent case of Equal Education (EE) where the court has ordered the government to fix school infrastructure, the government gives the impression that the only way to make it listen is through court orders. This has been a significant way civil society has been able to force the government to act. 

Over the years, social justice organisations have played a significant role in holding the government accountable, especially where issues of human rights are concerned. When in 2001, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) took then president Thabo Mbeki’s government to court for refusing to distribute anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive mothers is a prime example. Another is when Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institution (SAFCEI) took the government to court over the nuclear deal

Based on these examples, government officials appear to care less about the values of the South African Constitution which should be at the centre of their work to address issues of social justice. Or perhaps we are to take the lesson that social change comes through the law and courts? Either way, this is not a sustainable nor scalable approach. 

The recent court case of the Regulations relating to Minimum Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure brought before the Bhisho High Court by EE, marks an important victory for poor, black learners. The Bhisho High Court ruled in EE's favour in the #FixTheNorms case, "Including declaring aspects of the school infrastructure law that allowed government to indefinitely delay fixing the unsafe and inadequate infrastructure in South African schools, as 'unconstitutional' and 'invalid'." 

Our socioeconomic landscape, not yet having effectively dealt with the deep fissures of apartheid, still prevents black learners (the majority of SA’s youth) from accessing equal and quality education that will enable them to compete with peers for socio-economic opportunities (further education, trades training and employment). The government’s tactics to avoid full accountability of addressing the problem of school infrastructure infringes on the right to basic education enshrined in our Constitution. Nelson Mandela articulated this point very well when he said:

"Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth, those who care for and protect our people."

How, therefore, do we create leaders out of children who receive inadequate schooling, living in constant fear of drowning in a pit toilet or have their class room walls or roofs collapse? Last year two of the Enkangala Secondary School’s classrooms in KwaZulu-Natal collapsed on a weekend. The government took a defensive stance that the incident could not have been foreseen; that the classrooms collapsed as a result of bad weather. This was despite the evidence revealed by EE and Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) that the school’s infrastructure was in a bad state prior the incident. The issue of poor school infrastructure is a huge concern for many public schools, in rural areas and township schools, not just this one.

How many children would have died if the classrooms collapsed during school hours, with children inside or next to the classroom? We can be grateful we did not have to find out. But it is unjust and immoral for any child to be exposed to such dangerous conditions simply to access education. In effect it is not just a denial of a constitutional right to education but a denial of dignity and justice.

Over the years there have been calls by learners and parents for the government to fix schools through public demonstrations and legal interventions. Yet those calls went unheeded and we have instead witnessed the devastating loss of two innocent lives, Michael Komape and Lumka Mkhethwa (both 5 years old) drowned in pit toilets on school premises. 

Even though Michael’s death occurred in 2014, the government was yet again adamant that it would not take responsibility for the cause. If not the government, who should take responsibility? Who is the custodian of the rights of the poor and children while at school? These are pertinent questions that we should ask ourselves. And government should be held accountable. Because these education challenges are not just about education but about life or death. 

Social justice organisations play an imperative role as pillars that strengthen our democracy in South Africa. Organisations such as EE, and many others, have demonstrated commitment in ensuring that people benefit from the fruits of democracy. In recognition of the critical contribution civil society makes, President Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) undertook to convene a Social Sector Summit, which would seek to build relations between the government and civil society. 

Organisations like the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Community Chest have already made submissions towards the Social Sector Summit. This is a necessary step, that will enable civil society to drive the agenda of the summit.

Civil society has been and remains, even in democratic SA, the vital bridge between the people and the government. The pressure and efforts that social justice organisations have put on the government gives hope that someone is listening to the cry of the marginalised. A government that does not fully commit itself to promoting and protecting its constitutional mandate, so as to redress the injustices of the past, has betrayed its people. 

It is therefore, imperative that the government hasten its efforts to build these relations and work closely with civil society, to bring material social and economic and political change that is tangible to the poor and the oppressed. One of the ways government can do this, beside actually implementing good policies and delivering jobs and prosperity, is to send social justice organisations to lead social justice conversations.

- Zusipe Batyi is the communications assistant at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He has a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    education  |  youth unemployment
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