Digital platform for social justice

Cape Town - 181106 - Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) hosted Professor Thuli Madonsela, Chair for Social Justice and Law at SU’s Faculty of Law. This address formed part of the Dean’s Distinguished Leader Lecture series, which serves as opportunities to listen to eminent leaders, from across the spectrum of public, private and plural sectors, talk about their personal vision and involvement in addressing some of society’s most pressing issues. The topic of Prof Madonsela’s lecture was ‘Social Justice and Ethical Leadership’. She recently completed a seven-year term as South Africa’s Public Protector. She subsequently founded the Thuma Foundation, an independent democracy leadership and literacy social enterprise. Prof Madonsela has a global reputation of integrity and fearlessness in enforcing accountability and justice in the exercise of public power and use of public resources. She was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2014 and the Forbes Africa Person of the Year in 2016. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

Professor Thuli Madonsela, the law trust chair in social justice in the faculty of law at Stellenbosch University, recently launched an action-oriented digital platform for social justice.

The first online conversation was held two weeks ago, themed “The social justice implications and constitutional compliance of policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic: When planning is not data supported both in terms of problem analysis and impact prediction, unintended harm results”.

The conversation formed part of broader conversations that are taking place under the law trust chair in social justice and related M-plan for social justice.

The aim of the digital platform is to create a permanent think-tank that will deal with all social justice-related issues in the advancement of substantive equality and in combatting poverty in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the constitutional duty to anchor our democracy in social justice and Agenda 2063.

Held on digital conferencing platform Microsoft Teams, and attended by 76 people, the series started with a discussion around the Covid-19 pandemic, with a focus on the interconnectedness of issues surrounding this pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis highlights the inequalities that already exist in South Africa, such as access to sanitation, water, healthcare, safe public transport, quality education and service delivery.

Keynote speakers included Professor Madonsela; Professor Sandra Fredman, professor of law in the faculty of law at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford; and Dr Pali Lehohla, former statistician general, and resident advisor, 22 On Sloane.

The dialogue saw law professors from Oxford, Stellenbosch and other local universities engage with ordinary members of the public and students. The digital event sought to assess the impact of Covid-19 and policy responses to it from a social justice perspective, focusing on poverty, inequality and mental health.

The speakers conceded that in combating the rapid spread of Covid-19, government could not avoid restrictive regulations with adverse consequences or sacrifices.

It was conceded though, that whereas Covid-19 treats everyone the same, its unequal impact is inevitable, given the socio-economic disparities in life that place others in a state of socio-economic fragility.

Participants also noted that devoid of equality impact consciousness, policy responses to Covid-19 had unduly harmed some more than others.

Says Professor Madonsela: “We must thank President Cyril Ramaphosa and everyone in government for putting us back on the pedestal of hope.

“Crisis has a way of tearing people apart but it also has a way of uniting people and whether you get united or torn apart depends on leadership. The coronavirus has put us on heightened grounds.

“Our environment has become volatile, uncertain and ambivalent, and as we try to respond to this virus, we should anchor everything that we do in the constitutional right to equality, read with Section 7(2) which subjects this country to the establishment of a society based on democratic values and social justice,” she said.

A loud and clear message was the need to leverage data analytics to predict the likely social justice impact of any planned policy. This means implementing a particular policy in the virtual space and assessing how it is likely to impact diversely situated groups in society before adopting it.

In the United Kingdom, this is a requirement under Section 149 of the Equality Act. It is the view of the social justice think-tank and related M-Plan, that equality impact conscious policy design is also mandatory in terms of Section 9, read with Section 7(2) of the South African Constitution.

In the circumstances, this would have entailed asking whether each planned regulation or guide would cause equal burdens and benefits between small and big business; poor and rich people; commuters and car owners; people in big houses and those in shacks; people in cities and rural people; people who suffer mental health and those who do not; older persons and young people; persons with no passive income and those with passive income; and nationals and immigrants, among others.

It does not mean that if a policy is likely to harm or benefit one group more than another, it must be abandoned. Firstly, policy design must be informed by the lived reality of all using socially disaggregated data.

Furthermore, access to policy design should be equitably distributed to prevent a one-size-fits-all design that is modelled against the lives of those with access to policy influence.

Key areas of concern that were identified at this early stage of the pandemic included the impact of the pandemic on mental health; digital/distance education and food security.

All were in agreement that smaller think-tanks surrounding these areas are needed so as to identify the gaps in regulatory policies that have been issued to date on Covid-19,  and in order to access their likely disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups. 

The roundtable will reconvene during the week of April 20. Contact Marna Lourens at mlourens@sun.ac.za for more information, or to register as a member of the social justice think-tank.