/ 20 February 2024

SA has made progress towards social justice, but more needs to be done

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Today, on World Day of Social Justice, we reflect on our country’s progress with ensuring fairness and equity. We acknowledge that South Africa has made substantial progress towards social justice in the first decade of democracy, with remarkable improvements in access to healthcare, clean water, electricity and sanitation. 

But most of us may be more aware of how recent difficulties have affected households and shaped mental health, leading to increased cynicism and concern. During the Covid-19 pandemic we lost more than two million jobs, and the economic recovery has been sluggish. Globally, job losses and income reductions have severely affected households, compounded by pandemic and war-related price hikes, which worsened the cost-of-living crisis. In South Africa, the response to this crisis has been impeded by budget cuts. 

Additionally, the past two years saw a dramatic increase in the severity of load-shedding. We have experienced mixed success in improving the quality of service delivery. In several provinces and municipalities, services have deteriorated with citizens experiencing frequent water outages and traversing main roads marked with potholes. Furthermore, the prevalence of violence, particularly towards children and women, remains unacceptably high. One in four children under the age of five is affected by stunting caused by malnutrition, which is associated with significant limitations to their cognitive functioning and long-term prospects in the labour market.

While many South Africans voice concerns about these issues, they disproportionately burden the lives of low-income households. For instance, affluent households can alleviate the effect of public service deficiencies through backup power sources, pothole-robust vehicles, private security and access to private healthcare and education. Because vulnerable households bear the brunt of our country’s failures, these problems affect social justice.  

Amid these problems, many South Africans express a loss of faith in the government. According to a 2023 survey by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), the proportion of South Africans who believe that the government does not prioritise the needs of people has increased from three-in-five in 2003 and 2013 to four-in-five in 2023. Similarly, the share of South Africans who feel that their leaders are untrustworthy has risen from one-in-five in 2003 and 2013 to four-in-five in 2023. The survey indicates that three-in-four South Africans believe that politicians need to respond to what people want and that people need to rely on each other rather than on elites. 

It is understandable that many of us may feel overwhelmed or even cynical. But, in assessing the country’s prospects it is crucial not to overlook one of our greatest assets: our people. The same IJR survey shows that over the past 15 years there has been substantial growth across all racial groups in the share of South Africans who have faith in a united South Africa. Additionally, the past five years has seen a steep rise in the share of people who believe that our similarities outweigh our differences. Overwhelmingly, and more than before, South Africans believe in their shared solidarity. 

The IJR report also highlights a growing recognition of the substantial and challenging transformation needed to create a fairer and more cohesive society. The honeymoon is over. Survey respondents identify the need to bridge the deep and persistent divide between rich and poor as the main obstacle to reconciliation. As we celebrate the ideal of social justice, the most pragmatic question may then be how can citizens help to bridge our country’s deep social divides?  

Encouragingly, despite these mounting problems listed earlier, the rate of volunteering has risen. According to Statistics South Africa’s surveys, volunteer rates have increased from 4% in 2010 to 6% in 2014, and to 8% in 2018. Although there are no official statistics after 2018, expert consensus suggests that volunteering decreased sharply during the pandemic but is recovering well post-pandemic. To transform our society, more of us need to join these volunteers who are active in their communities. Volunteering activities that focus on parental support, nutrition, safety, health and psycho-social stimulation of children under two can have a profound effect. Early interventions can have significant long-term effects on human capital and labour market prospects, helping to break intergenerational inequalities and poverty cycles.

In terms of social campaigns, one of the most effective investments in social justice is to enhance the accountability of the government and local leaders by pushing for greater transparency and open public data. Transparency is daunting because it makes decision-makers more vulnerable to criticism and public scrutiny.  But there are significant public benefits. It can help inform and empower civil society and voters and can improve governance and public service delivery, it can build trust and credibility, prevent corruption and quell the proliferation of speculation and suspicion. It is worth standing up for this cause on public forums. Our democracy will be stronger if transparency and open data become a core value for South Africans. To effectively bridge social divides, more equitable access to high-quality health services and education are vital and thus accountability in these domains is considered to be a priority.

Last, recent research has shown that taking the time to listen to the stories of people outside our social circles can be profoundly transformative. It is timely that such findings emerge because many of us are still recovering from the social isolation of the pandemic, and with loneliness identified as an epidemic on the rise. Conversations with people that we do not know can also have important benefits by making us feel less isolated and enhancing empathy and social cohesiveness. The IJR report found that about one-in-three South Africans often socialise with people of other races in their own homes or the homes of friends. Listening to each other’s stories can help counteract the tendency to reduce people to statistics and stereotypes. A Durban-based nonprofit, ReStory Foundation, has harnessed the transformative power of building relationships across all divides, especially the economic divide. They found that although initially differences appear vast, stories helped to uncover a shared humanity and an equality of personhood. 

Recent studies on talking to strangers indicate that meaningful connections and interactions with people that we do not know contribute significantly to our mental health and happiness. The researchers explain that these conversations matter because they fulfil our human need for connectedness and rootedness. Through attentive and respectful listening, we not only elevate the humanity of others but also enhance our own. Recognising the hidden power of this shared connectedness and mutual respect can strengthen our resolve and commitment to social justice, and help us build a narrative of hope and resilience. 

Ronelle Burger is a professor in the department of economics and a researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy Group at Stellenbosch University. Mandy Pearson is the founder and chief executive of ReStory Foundation.