In praise of SA’s unsung heroes

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 14 July 2022.

In the face of government’s callous disregard, the social justice sector strives to give real meaning to SA’s progressive constitution. Our society would be all the poorer without it.

If you are the kind of person who holds out hope that a more just, more equal and less cruel world is both desirable and possible, then these are deeply depressing times. The response to the pandemic demonstrated what we can achieve with political will and a focused deployment of capital, but lockdown-induced visions of “building back better” now seem downright naive in the cold light of a world newly obsessed with war and fossil fuels.

In SA, many of our leaders brim with self-satisfied, arrogant contempt for the people who elected them. Accountability is such a foreign concept that cabinet ministers freely behave in ways that would end most normal people’s careers. Have you ever, anywhere, seen a government minister scream at a member of the public the way police minister Bheki Cele shrieked at a community activist last week?

But while the government twists itself into ever more complicated knots of venal ineffectiveness, there is a quiet, mostly unrecognised army of people dedicated to trying to undo the damage and hold the line against the true horror that we would be subjected to without them.

This is the “social justice sector”, which surprisingly few South Africans are familiar with. It is not a formal sector, but a convenient descriptor for a range of organisations established with the aim of holding power to account, and of helping to realise the civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights enshrined in our constitution.

These organisations, most of which are staffed by fewer than 20 or 30 people and operate on small and precarious budgets, are focused on a wide variety of issues that are crucial determinants of national socioeconomic outcomes and in relation to which the government’s approach ranges from callous neglect to apparently malicious destruction.

A small selection of these issues, many of which intersect with each other, includes access to decent education in humane surroundings and to health-care services, children’s rights, women’s rights, media freedom, parliamentary and local government accountability, the protection of land rights and immigrant rights, service delivery, the independence of the judiciary, the integrity of the electoral system, environmental degradation, pollution and climate change.

Social justice organisations have been responsible for exposing many of the most significant governance failures and corruption scandals of recent times: think Jacob Zuma’s nuclear procurement plans (Earthlife Africa), the Net1/SA Social Security Agency debacle of unauthorised deductions from the bank accounts of social grant recipients (Black Sash and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies), the Gupta leaks (amaBhungane) and the Life Esidimeni tragedy (Section27).

These organisations (which were the main faces of the campaigns, though various groups were involved) and many others like them are dedicated to preventing our constitution from becoming a meaningless relic. They campaign for the eradication of pit toilets in schools, for the right to protest, for transparency in political party funding, for privacy and digital rights and for fair treatment from the police, and against unlawful evictions, online surveillance, violence against women, and racial and gender discrimination.

They track and monitor the work of parliamentary portfolio committees and judicial appointment committees, they comment on draft legislation and research and analyse the consequences of government policies. They scrutinise procurement processes and authorisations for development and challenge unlawful decision-making, and they use laws governing access to information to elicit crucial information that should be in the public domain.

Believing in a better world

The social justice sector supports the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society to fight for the rights and dignity they are entitled to but are denied because they are poor.

But this work also has important wider relevance. As recent events in the US highlight, rights and freedoms, once won, are not guaranteed in perpetuity; constant vigilance is required, especially with a government whose track record of respect for the law and the constitution is so dismal.

The people who work for social justice organisations know that the odds are stacked against them; they know that they are more likely to be accused of being “agents of a foreign power” or greenies or (gasp!) socialists, than they are to be widely appreciated for the work that they do. And they know that the financial rewards will never match what they could earn in the private sector. Despite all that, they continue to believe in the possibility of a better society and of doing something to achieve it. That, I think, South Africans should celebrate.

By Tracey Davies

IMAGE: 123RF / niroworld

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