Opinion

Listening is key to safeguard our dignity

Sandi Baai

Beware of repeating the apartheid era's fatal error of failing to heed the people's desperate cries, writes Sandi Baai.

Service delivery protests over unenclosed toilets in Cape Town and the Free State showed the extent to which human dignity could be violated when politicians do not pay attention. (David Harrison, M&G)

The two days spent at Kliptown in Soweto for the Social Cohesion Summit have given us another space in which to create a united South Africa. Racism, both historical and contemporary, was one of the main concerns raised at the summit, but it will take years for South African communities to eradicate it.

For now, the basic social problems are mainly related to the vast structural economic inequalities in a country that has the capability to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

For me, structural poverty is a space in which the centre or periphery thesis has ruled for a long time. It plays a significant role in society, whether we are talking about social cohesion, racism or the promotion of a human rights culture.  The centre represents the economic ideologies of colonialism and apartheid with the concomitant institutionalisation of race rule; the periphery refers to the black majority.

It could be argued that structural poverty and marginalisation are the consequences of social relations that have to do with the manipulation of power in the economy. This has led to untold suffering for the black majority on the periphery. To close the gap would give dignity to the nation.

These related matters underscore the significance of the fundamentals of respect for human dignity. To contextualise human dignity, we should note that section 10 of the Constitution states that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”.

Foundational value
Statistics are not readily available to indicate the extent to which this right has been implemented in South African society, but it should be clear that human dignity is a foundational value that underscores the rights to equality and freedom.

Several implications arise from this core value. First, it claims that human beings are equal in worth and value. Second, it implies that human beings have a right to be protected from any treatment that offends their dignity in society. Third, it stresses that human beings and their individual autonomy must be treated with respect.

Such rights are a new chapter that negates both the colonial system and apartheid in South Africa, both of which subjugated black people. Internal and external forces for change regarded apartheid as an immoral system – because there was no respect for human dignity.

For this reason, social movements and their leaders should be supported in their condemnation of the lack of service delivery to our people.

At the same time, it could be argued that one of the outstanding features of the apartheid era was the lack of listening between the oppressor and the oppressed. The former would not hear what the cry of the latter was all about.

Social stratification
And this might echo what is happening today, despite the differences. It is different in that we live in a democratic, free, nonracial and nonsexist society, but in it service delivery has been slow. The similarities between the apartheid era and the present day lie in social stratification.

There is still an unintentional space that has been created for some classes in society. Those hard hit in terms of service delivery are at the bottom of society. Inequality relates to a particular class in society – the vulnerable. They would have moved up the ladder in terms of social mobility if they had the required educational skills.

Yet, regardless, their human dignity needs protection and respect. The lack of delivery to our communities is tantamount to a lack of listening skills on the part of those responsible for delivering services.

The lack of a quick response by the government to Maria Maphanga of Nyonganeh Trust, near Hazyview in Mpumalanga, means that for four years she has had to use a toilet as her bedroom, dining room and kitchen and thus her dignity has been constantly violated.

A community in the Eastern Cape that struggles to reach its mobile clinic facilities has had its dignity infringed because its plea has fallen on deaf ears. The construction of toilets that were not enclosed for the people of Makhaza near Cape Town and Rammolutsi in the Free State has shown the extent to which human dignity can be violated if there is no listening.

As noted, to respect and protect the dignity of a human being entail, among other things, the power to listen. If we did listen, there would be no need for litigations, demonstrations or protests over the lack of service delivery.

This is not to take away the credit for good work the structures of society have done. It is to say that, if human dignity is constantly violated by the lack of listening, there might be another rebellion that would lock horns with the national democratic revolution.  

Dr Sandi Baai is a commissioner with the South African Human Rights Commission. These are his personal views

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