One Young World
One Young World

Substantive, not normative equality is what we need

By Elsabe van Vuuren

In 1994 South Africa rejoiced at the ordination of a new government. South Africans also celebrated the end of deeply unjust apartheid laws. This was a new beginning for Southern Africa. South Africa joined its neighbours, namely Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and, Zimbabwe in the fight for more equal opportunities for its citizens. The battle also involved righting the wrongs which left thousands of African families trapped in poverty. Today most of these families are getting poorer by the day.

Before criticise what we have done thus far, I must mention some of our noteworthy accomplishments. The new South Africa set out normative terms which promoted the notion that individuals should be treated equally before the law. Discrimination on the bases of race, sex, skin colour, religious affiliation was also prohibited. This is a giant leap forward from where we used to be and heralded a much brighter future. Yet, I am not sure if the future we live in now is really that much better, or that much different.

While some battle to survive, others thrive. While driving through Pretoria, one sees palace-sized homes on one side of the road and cardboard boxes line the other side of the road. On the one side there is extreme wealth; extreme poverty is on the other. This is the new South Africa. We abolished the laws that separated some from others. In their place we put laws to prevent discrimination. I am not sure if that is enough.

I am critical about the justice obtained by the state through the introduction of normative equality. Equality on paper is good and well, but the introduction of a new legal order was set in the hopes that the terms for equality would somehow jump off the page and be actualised in society. It is true that more children go to school, people have greater — and in most respects equal — access to jobs. Yet, the society we live in reflects the same inequalities of yesteryear. The normative terms have NOT jumped off the page. And frankly I do not think they ever will. We need to start thinking differently about equality.

Equality needs to be looked at in substantive terms — do the provisions for equal opportunities, non-discrimination and fair treatment produce substantive results? I believe not. Our society reflects almost greater inequality from that which was displayed in it before. This might be because although the law no longer separates us, we still choose to do it ourselves. We built private schools; we put up high-barbed wire fences; we establish private hospitals; we go to private clubs, exclusive restaurants, etcetera. All this separates us from the community at large. In the process, we withdraw resources and funds from those at the very bottom of the pyramid and expend it on ourselves.

There is an exclusive economy, running on its own terms, outside of our communities. It drains our communities until they become even emptier and poorer than they were before. It builds infrastructure that we do not need in the first place, and only a handful of us will ever enjoy. Affluent individuals and businesses need to start investing back into the community. I am not talking about social responsibility or charity. I am talking about big businesses investing in small-scale entrepreneurs in the place of taking a staff weekend to Dubai. We need to go back to the understanding of Ubuntu. We need to go back to principles of Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye (caring for the success of other people, and making their success our concern as well). Africa is not a place to be selfish. It is not a place to live if you do not want to know your own neighbours. In Africa you cannot be on your own, in Africa — we are.

We need to tackle the essence of substantive equality. It is through such actions that school children will truly have equal opportunities. It is time this disproportionately distributed wealth was pumped back into the public sector. Private businesses must invest in public schools. Private businesses can renovate an existing public school instead of building a private school or a golf course. However, they cannot do all the work alone. The church and the state also have a role to play.

I believe our local churches are powerful actors. This is in terms of their ability to bring people from different backgrounds together. The church creates communities beyond our ridiculous walls. But, the church needs to do more. The church needs to get restless about giving people substantive equality and seeing positive outcome. The church played an active role in lobbying for the end of apartheid. Now it needs to start playing an active role to help achieve substantive outcomes.

Once the state, the business and the religious sectors start working together towards the achievement of substantive equality, we will begin seeing results. Until then, the law is an empty promise — a pacifier to keep us yearning for the real thing, whilst making us believe it is in our hands.

  • Elsabe van Vuuren (20) is a young advocate for change in Namibia, currently focusing on children’s rights and working to improve the lives of orphans and vulnerable children. She is studying international law at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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