To achieve a fair society, acting in the spirit of the late George Bizos is crucial, not just within the formal legal system, but within every individual
On 9 September 2020 we lost a legend. George Bizos, a widely renowned anti-apartheid activist and champion for human rights, passed away at the age of 92. Bizos was a humble giant in the South African legal landscape. As tributes poured in from across political, racial and economic lines, a common virtue was repeatedly heralded — Bizos was unquestionably committed to and relentlessly fought for justice, regardless of the odds or power imbalance. For Bizos, justice was intuitive and, at its core, justice was always about people.
Justice. It’s a simple word. And it does seem like a simple, perhaps even obvious, concept: a set of universal principles that guide us in judging what is right and what is wrong, no matter what culture or society we live in. The legal dimension of justice, and the intertwined idea of access to that justice, can be found in the courts and in access to legal services, developed out of the fundamental principle that all people should enjoy equality and just and fair treatment before the law. Some constitutions — like South Africa’s Constitution, which in its preamble specifically recognises the injustices of South Africa’s past — have been deliberately designed to take this concept of justice further to encompass issues such as social justice.
Although there is some academic debate about the meaning of “social justice” it is helpful to consider it as a concept of fairness in the assignment of fundamental civil and political, social and economic, cultural and environmental rights and duties, economic opportunities and social conditions. For example, the progressive realisation of socioeconomic rights, such as access to healthcare services, social services, and sufficient food and water, is seen as a way to contribute to the achievement of a more just society.
Irrespective of the legal framework for the achievement of justice, we can all probably think of numerous examples of injustice in our daily lives or in close proximity to us. It would be naive, although incredibly tempting, to think that a legal system calling for equality and justice could magically ensure the achievement of such a just social order. In fact, the lived experience is somewhat different.
Think of those born to foreign parents in South Africa who meet all the requirements for South African citizenship, but are effectively denied South African citizenship — and all the benefits associated with citizenship — for no apparent reason. Think of the women subjected to violence and abuse within their homes, the very places they are meant to feel the safest, often unable to seek help from the courts, the police, friends or family. Think of the miners exposed to asbestos and their years-long fight for justice and compensation. Think of a friend who may have stood up to an injustice in the workplace and, as a result, effectively being managed out of any career progression or even a career. Think of those unable to access basic water and sanitation services and of the state resources specifically set aside for such purposes being looted through shadow state structures.
The achievement of justice extends beyond court proceedings and a formalised legal system and necessarily involves various functionaries such as government, independent institutions, the private sector and civil society, and has real implications for the manner in which we live our lives.
The principle of fairness
So what does this mean for us? At its core, justice is about being fair in all areas of life. About allowing all voices to be heard and ensuring that fairness prevails. It is also more than just about the decision of a judge or arbiter — it is about the spirit and values that prevail in a particular environment. Justice is the fabric that runs through our society, our businesses, our places of work and even our own homes. Without justice, without a fair society or fair organisations, we can never achieve the many goals of human development, including those set out in aspirational legal frameworks.
So how do we live in a manner that is fair and just? Just like in a courtroom, there are always different sides to an argument — different perspectives on a particular issue. Whether it is an issue relating to a grievance at work, a disagreement at home, or the rights of a large group of people, there are always differences of opinion that need to be reconciled to achieve peace or progress. But here’s the thing: in most cases, the people on either side of an argument believe strongly that they are “right”. In fact, it is rare that someone would intentionally argue for something they deeply believed was “wrong”.
When we look at issues in our own lives, it is helpful to recognise that in most disputes, both parties usually have good intentions and will argue for what they believe is “right” — whether such a belief system is conscious or unconscious. Even when something may seem blatantly “wrong”, those arguing for it would usually have first convinced themselves that it was not, or that it was acceptable in particular circumstances.
The role of belief systems
For example, if we conduct a criminal act — such as stealing — we may first justify to ourselves that what we are doing is right — a justified redistribution of resources from rich to poor. This understanding means that we need to develop an appreciation that all people are driven by their own conscious and unconscious belief systems, whether “wrong” or “right”, and we need to apply that knowledge to disputes we face in everyday life and work. Many of the injustices we are faced with every day are more likely to be built on good intention or unconscious bias, rather than orchestrated evil. Understanding these humble realities, and recognising the humanity of our opponents in an argument, is important in any quest to achieve justice.
This also means that finding justice in everyday life is not always trivial, and can be an emotional and complex task that must be rooted in logic, evidence and agreed-on principles such as human rights. After all, when there is no clear line between right and wrong, and often there isn’t, we have to vigorously defend what is fair. It merits comment that even when there is a clear line between right and wrong, and there will be instances of this, the vigorous defence of fairness may still be required in a difficult and even dangerous environment.
The defence of fairness is not always easy nor glamourous. When lone voices try to speak out against acts of unfairness within an organisational structure, for example, they can easily be silenced, ignored or vilified. How often have we seen women raising issues of fairness at work but being labelled “angry feminists”? How often have we seen a black person trying to raise an issue of unfairness among white colleagues, and being told “don’t make this a race thing”?
Supporting people who speak out
How often do we see organisations appoint heavy-hitting corporate lawyers to intimidate and overwhelm aggrieved parties who stood up only because they believed they were on the right side of the law? And how often do we see the silent victimisation of those who speak out against injustices — the subtle sidelining of the “troublemaker”? For all these brave and courageous people, who stand up for what is fair and just, in spite of the personal negative consequences, we need more Bizoses in the world to defend them.
But any conversation about justice or fairness cannot happen in isolation from realities on the ground. We are in an intensely connected world, in which the ease of communication, through the combination of cellphones and the internet, has led to an environment in which justice, and evidence, is being crowdsourced. Although there can be benefits to the information and knowledge generated through this interconnectedness, we need to pause to consider how we can achieve fairness in society when social media “mob justice” can destroy an individual before they even say a word to defend themselves.
How do we achieve justice in an environment in which fake “evidence” proliferates before its integrity is ever questioned? Although it provides an invaluable voice to the many who have previously been unheard, digital communication has also served to amplify the divide between disputing parties and drive us further from the concept of a “fair trial”. Since any issue, no matter how illogical, destructive or unethical, can now find a group of supporters online, the ability to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” has become even harder.
In this environment, the spirit of Bizos’s quest for justice is crucial, not just within the formal legal system, but within every individual. The path towards justice and fairness must adapt and evolve in this environment. Because the sad reality is that the judicial system barely touches on the vast number of disputes across all facets of society. If we do not manage to embed that quest for justice within every one of us in society, then we will never achieve the ideals that Bizos and others have lived for, and were prepared to die for.
How we can help
So, what can we do? Well, the truth is that each of us can do a whole lot. There are incredible organisations, like the Legal Resources Centre (to which Bizos was closely connected), as well as Section27, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Black Sash, to name just a few within a South African-specific context, tackling injustice every day. You and I can support these organisations in their work by donating money, resources and/or time.
We can take the time to stand with a colleague or friend who has been castigated for expressing a view or who is struggling with an injustice. We can recognise that we are all biased in some way and accept that we ourselves are not perfect judges of right and wrong. We can have honest conversations with our children about justice and injustice and, perhaps most importantly, we can set the example that we would want them to follow by actively standing up against all forms of injustice whenever it is encountered, uncovered or even sought out.
As much as we would like it to be so, justice is not immediate, it is not a given and it often requires hard work and sacrifice to be achieved. But if we can take one learning from the giant life of Bizos, let it be this: justice is important. Let us never stop, never get tired, always get up, and always, always, do our best to dedicate ourselves, daily, constantly, relentlessly, to seeking out and pursuing justice in all areas of our lives. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our children, we owe it to our fellow humans. We owe it to the memory of giants like George Bizos.
Claire Franklyn is a lawyer and sessional lecturer at University of the Witwatersrand. Kevin Govender is a physicist and director of the Office of Astronomy for Development.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.