In the height of a once in a century pandemic it might seem like hubris to salute the work of the South African social justice sector. All of us it seems have just been getting on with the work of social distancing, isolation and just keeping going whatever means keep us alive.
Where we can. Yet some clearly have not been able to – spare a thought for the informal sector workers locked out of the public spaces that are their ‘workplaces’ during the hard lockdown from early April 2020. The social justice sector at the height of the pandemic, continues to confront declining education budgets, fights for access to unemployment insurance, to food in food insecure areas, and extends the hand of our healthcare system through the work of care and community health workers that have strengthened the national response.
It is no doubt a task they are well accustomed to. Since the fall of Apartheid many of the organizations we have spoken to in this Series, have brought closer to many communities the Constitutional promise of our democratic breakthrough. They have made rights ‘tangible’ and have contributed to giving practical meaning to the injunction that the ‘People Shall Govern’.
Slogans and chants aside, the #WomenInSocialJustice series has been about shining a spotlight on the women at the frontier of holding the ground that many have so valiantly sacrificed for.
The ‘ground’ that consistently and constructively engages and critiques the exercise of power within and beyond the state.
In firms, in ward committees, school governing bodies and community policing fora. Where power exists and is exercised, women are there. To ensure in many cases, as our series showed, that such power is built and where it is exercised, this is done in line with the injunctions of our supreme law.
The rights guaranteed to all in the Constitution to education, healthcare, food, water, housing and social security are a decisive break with the South Africa of old. In the new society we all committed ourselves to build in the heady days of our transition, ‘everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing, education, reproductive healthcare, sufficient food and water’.
In order for these rights to be realized the Constitution makes clear the role of state action, through reasonable measures, to make progressively available and accessible all these rights. I
It is a tall ask, and the leaders we have spoken to, in their day to day work, have sought to give these injunctions ‘meaning’, even when it has meant direct confrontation with the state, corporations and what they deem ‘reasonable’.
At times the task of the social justice sector has also been, as Umunyana Rugege from Section 27 suggested, ‘(to) build up and strengthen state institutions, so that there is accountability for those directly affected’. And in South Africa there are many things that ‘affect’ us, from mental healthcare users being bused off in wheelbarrows and bakkies headed for garages, to large corporations polluting water sources to inadequate resource allocation to community safety in areas that need it the most. The reclamation of these rights through advocacy, litigation and movement-building is a crucial part of bringing social change as Palesa Madi from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies reminded us. Similarly, Tracey Malawana from Equal Education observed that the key challenge of the moment was, ‘how (to) use education to eradicate social ills within our community’.
Put differently, how does the act and struggle to achieve basic promises of the new South Africa, interlink with the restoration of dignity and humanity? As this work evolves it undoubtedly interfaces with technological advances, as Koketso Moeti from Amandla.mobi, which uses mobile telephony and the digital space as a ‘democracy-building tool’. It is work that occurs in a shifting and ever-changing context, and the ‘toolkit’ to respond to these shifts, is changing accordingly. The work, in building movements and currents of change, that Amandla.mobi undertakes alongside other organizations using USSD, text and digital channels is testimony to this.
Moreover, the work of the sector as Noncedo Madubedube from Equal Education told us, is also about a long-term project of entrenching the ‘ideas of justice, equality and equity inside campaigns (in the sector) that will be sustained over a long period of time’.
Justice in South Africa requires the prioritization in how we intervene and engage; of the fissures of race, gender, class and geography that continue to separate a country, whose tasks remain those of ‘national reconstruction’. That journey of reconstruction, for Mandisa Dyantyi, is about ‘making sure that democracy is real for everyone’ she says, ‘and that South Africa really belongs to all who live in it’. At a time when many feel alienated, displaced and removed from life and livelihood in this nation. It is an unenviable task, but one as this series has shown, that women leaders within the social justice sector stand ready to undertake and complete.