BOOK EXTRACT: The journey we must take together

This is an edited version of the epilogue to Get Up! Stand Up!, Section 27, Save SA and Unite Against Corruption activist Mark Heywood's book about the fight for social justice in the country. 

Tafelberg, 236 pages, R260

February 2005 was a hot summer in Cape Town. For the third year in a row TAC had organised a march to coincide with the opening of Parliament and the annual State of the Nation address by President Mbeki.

We had made a great breakthrough in 2003 when a national ARV treatment plan had been published, but implementation of the plan was being frustrated by the Minister of Health, who was supported by AIDS denialists and probably the President himself.

The deadly delay was keeping medicines from people whose lives depended on them. To try to speed things up, TAC had launched a new campaign demanding ‘200 000 people on ARV treatment by 2006’. Once again the march ended at the gates of Parliament. But this year we had set up 400 white plastic chairs on the square outside the National Assembly, so that MPs could come out to hear our demands.

Only one MP, ANC stalwart Ben Turok, took a seat.We were undeterred. The TAC speakers directed their words to the ghosts in the empty chairs. When my turn came I told the empty chairs that although the prescription of ARVs at state hospitals had commenced, it was happening too slowly. People were still dying.

That was twelve years ago. As we said, TAC’s struggle goes on, for everyone. I remain part of it. So too does the centuries-old struggle for social justice continue. The denial of socio-economic rights – of housing, education, clean water, sufficient food – to anyone is an injustice. Let’s be clear, social justice is affordable. We have ample resources. It is outrageous that in our world a small minority of people command and own unimaginable wealth and use it to usurp the fruits of our shared civilisation.

Meanwhile for several billion people the prospect that they will ever experience dignity and a meaningful life is receding. For as long as these injustices endure, it will be incumbent on good people, like you and me, to take a stand and challenge them.

My journey towards social justice will end only when there is social justice for all – that is, when there is substantive equality between peoples. That day is a long way away, unlikely in my lifetime. But as you can see, it’s been an interesting road. Permit me to make some suggestions that may help you on your own journey:

What is it that divides us?

I am a person of the white race, middle class, privileged with a high-quality education. I am a man. To people who are oppressed each part of my character carries some culpability. I have tried to grapple with this culpability.

At the age of thirteen I commenced my one-boy rebellion against racism. Since then I have taken a stand against the privileged among my race, the white people of this century and the last.

But looking back I understand that apartheid is more than a political construct dreamt up by Hendrik Verwoerd and the National Party in South Africa. It is a global phenomenon. We have allowed separateness to be constructed within us, or at least we the middle classes, we the privileged, we the whites. Apartheid is not a part of the poor, because poverty forces people upon and against each other.

Once upon a time and not so long ago, separation was possible. But in today’s world separateness is as unsustainable as apartheid. People are connected to each other whether they like it or not. You and I are connected.

While it is true that it was the rise of capitalism that created and then exploited racial inequality, the fact is that my race, people who are white, have surfed atop the great waves of capitalism, colonialism and neocolonialism. We have almost always stayed on the crest of the wave, glorying in the sun, the sky and the sea, as millions of others have been drowned beneath it.

So we must understand that race does matter. In late September 2016 I spent an afternoon with some of my family beside a swimming pool at a sports club in Tuxedo Park, a forested suburb of New York state. Young white children frolicked in a swimming pool, carried squash racquets, took kayaks onto a glassy lake that mirrored the mountains around it. These children were oblivious of the larger world they live in. These children are insulees.

In that very same hour across the Atlantic Ocean on the edge of Fortress Europe, a place that can be reached in a second by email, children of this same world lived through horror and fear as they were swept along in a refugee flood into a hostile and often racist Europe. They sought to escape bombs, beheadings and constant insecurity.

In those same moments the body of Alan Kurdi, a little boy of three, was being fished off a beach in Turkey, as if he were a beached seal. Images flashed at the speed of light to every corner of the world. Evoking howls of anger from some, compounding inertia in others. I doubt that even one of the children beside the swimming pool noticed or cared. Unless children of privilege can learn to see themselves as common citizens of a common world, not part of an elite, they will be the problem when they grow up. The actions or inactions of their parents, and their parents before them, have contributed to the civilisational crisis we now face. Their job is to help to undo it.

But how?

It is important to call out white people’s complicity and complacency. In the free South Africa inequality has become more stark and more visible than it was under apartheid, when it was tucked away in homelands and townships. Poverty leers into car windows at every road intersection, seeking a few cents or rands. Poverty holds pathetic handwritten placards. Yet most white people still seem oblivious of the silent roar of suffering inside the human beings around them. Most white people remain mentally shackled in their own privilege.

My journey took me through apartheid, then through AIDS denialism. Three and a half million people have died of AIDS in South Africa this century. But most people carry on as if this holocaust had never happened.

Denialism is deadly.

Denialism may cost us our planet.

When I started my journey I chose to get involved. You do not have as much choice as I did. Taking a stand is now a matter of survival.

In the past, people of privilege could live out their lives largely untouched by others’ pain and suffering, by social dislocations, even by wars. This has changed. The world has grown much smaller. Poverty and people have exploded to such an extent that they are pressing in more and more – even on those who consider themselves secure. The levels of inequality, the environmental crisis and climate change constitute a civilizational emergency that will be very hard for anyone to keep at bay, even if a wall’s built. If people do not act together we will not be able to avoid wars over water or food or new shapes of ‘terrorism’ from people whose alienation or hatred is so complete that it has freed them from what were once considered the rules of civilised behaviour, even in war.

You have a self-interest in joining forces with the poor to advance equality and human dignity.

We must make social justice the heart of our quest and defend gains made in the centuries-long struggle to have it accepted that all human beings have equal human rights.

During the twentieth century many social justice activists made ideology the centre of struggle. We fought for –isms. We can no longer afford to be chained to big ideas that do not take all of society forward. We should act with a clearer articulation of the type of society we want.

Those of us who live in South Africa are well placed to do this. The Preamble to our Constitution enjoins us to bring into being ‘a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights’. These three pillars differentiate South Africa from many other rights-based constitutions, which may protect democracy and human rights, but make no reference to social justice.

Lawyers and constitution-writers are fastidious about words. So the words ‘social justice’ must be there for a reason. They are. They tilt our country towards what earlier generations once considered should be the fruits of socialism – human equality and dignity. But they do so without binding the state to any ideology. Who can disagree with the idea that we should actively pursue substantive equality between peoples to try to ensure each person’s fundamental rights, housing, health, water, food, basic education?

We all often feel powerless but we must recognise that this is only a feeling: In fact we have a great deal of power.

In this book I have described several successful campaigns for social justice. There are many more. I have shown how TAC linked up with activists all over the world and bettered millions of lives. These campaigns have unleashed the power of ordinary people and have usually depended on two things: the existence of legally binding frameworks which, on paper, protect and advance human rights, and the presence of organisations and individuals who wanted to put them into practice.

Do not forget, the South African Constitution is our supreme law. It sets clear parameters for both government and corporate power. It inclines society towards social justice. It is an antidote to neoliberalism because it mandates that South Africa should have a strong government that places each individual’s well-being at the centre of all law, politics and – vitally – economics. Our Constitution is one part of a framework of laws based on human rights that exists internationally.

The logic of neoliberalism led to many evil things but it has not yet dismantled this legal framework. It acted outside them, outside the law. It has been aided in doing so by us, because with its bright light dazzling us and with the confusion of ideologies fogging our minds we did not take advantage of instruments to advance social justice that lie at our feet.

Let me put my cards on the table: human society is too vast and complex and contradictory to escape regulation and restraint. Law is the best means for doing this. There are many forms, areas and divisions of law, but our supreme laws should be human rights laws.

But law is not self-enacting. It needs people to wield it.

In some ways each of the movements for social justice described in this book has been an experiment to test the power that organised people can really exert, including through the law.

When it comes to the rights to ARV treatment for AIDS and to basic education, single organisations have proved sufficient to win tangible victories such as access to a class of life-saving medicines or a clearly defined right to have textbooks. But sustaining and extending these achievements requires something much larger. It requires that people start to gnaw at the roots of power. It requires that people start to rediscover a common vision of an alternative society. In South Africa it requires that we join the dots, connecting ourselves to the millions of people elsewhere in the world who are already trying to do this.

Can civil society globalise its force and become a political power that cuts across all the artificial distinctions that have been imposed upon and accepted by us – nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, ability, even age? Can civil society emerge with power strong enough to corral and direct corporate and governmental powers? Can civil society on its million different frontlines launch an offensive on every localised expression of injustice and cruelty? Can the good people of the world, you and me, raise our hands and create a planetary wave that demands that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be the foundation of a truly global compact and constitution? Can we make social justice the lodestar that will help revive our humanity?

That’s the question you have to answer.

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