What has your justice dividend yielded?

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Have you ever stopped to count the blessings that have come your way by virtue of the justice dividend?

“What is that?” you might ask.

It’s the set of entitlements and privileges, legislated and discretionary, that have flowed to all previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs) since 1994.

In the more progressive corners of SA, the justice dividend was declared before democratisation, resulting in women landing senior positions at work and black students being allowed into white universities and so on.

The pre-1994 dividend relied on the magnanimity of former gatekeepers and therefore it tended to operate as a favour to which the most appropriate response would be gratitude. The beauty of our legislated transformation is that it democratised access to this dividend and constructed it as an entitlement.

However, many in our society extend the dividend not through compulsion but because they are convinced by the justice imperative and understand that a transformation driven solely by the government has a limited chance of success.

The justice dividend, then, is a mechanism to correct undue imbalances that resulted from a lack of enlightenment.

For only a society lacking wisdom can discriminate on the basis of colour, disability and gender, deny the poor access to social protection and exile those who question its logic.

Thus, in time, the formerly dysfunctional system pays for its own sins through the disbursement of a justice dividend.

So again, when did you last stop to count the blessings you owe to the justice dividend? This question derives its relevance from the defunct nature of the economy of justice.

One would think the thing that enables systems to reduce vibrancy and diversity into blanket identities should also be available to transformational systems seeking to make the experience of justice universal.

But of course, the technology that creates uniformity is often violent repression, so perhaps that’s a jack better kept in the box. Therefore the problem with declaring the justice dividend in an open society is one of distribution.

How do you ensure that those who were equally oppressed are equally liberated? Quantification presents a challenge and, without denying its importance, I fear its pursuit would result in an over-simplification of the bigger question.

And that question, the big question, is how to resolve the contradiction inherent in the abundance, boundlessness and all-embracing nagture of oppression versus the limited availability and uneven distribution of justice.

Indeed, it seems an easier task to exclude than to include, and as a result some of us have made it into RDP homes while others languish on waiting lists, some of us are happy in cross-cultural marriages while others are killed for their choice of lover.

Evidently, then, access to the justice dividend is also driven by a diverse set of factors ranging from geography to class and even talent.

Therefore, the Stephen Hawkings of this world are able to leverage the benefits of their genius when bigotry retreats.

For the most part, however, reversing the blunt tool of repression seems to go hand in hand with giving selective access to the fruits of justice, even if only by virtue of time constraints. Thus, there are only so many Patrices, Cyrils and Tokyos in our midst today.

If we accept the challenges of universalising SA’s justice dividend, we must also be willing to have a conversation about the responsibilities incumbent upon those who found gold at the freedom end of our rainbow.

No, this is not a “get out of jail free” card for the government whose responsibility it is to broaden access to the benefits of our freedom. Neither is it arguing for the previously advantaged to be absolved of their responsibilities.

Rather, it is about the responsibilities of all those who have received individual benefits in the name of a collectively borne cross.

It certainly is easier to be vociferous about a 300-year-old delay in entitlements because we can couch those claims in the language of rights. However, we have a limited lexicon around the question of responsibility, in this case the responsibilities we have to those in whose name we were oppressed and later rewarded.

For in reality, every contract awarded on the basis of black economic empowerment contains an element due to the collective that is black South Africa; every job awarded with gender in mind represents a small victory in a struggle much greater and older than any woman who lives today.

Without negating the role of personal effort, it is important that we suspend our egos in favour of the greater good.

Yes, you studied hard for that degree and endured the wrath of a horrible boss for many years to get where you are.

That’s acknowledged. Now try to imagine where you would be today in the absence of the justice dividend. Sitting in a shack, your talents unrealised, having never met your would-be soulmate or best friend because of racial difference? Possibly.

Does history owe us our various entitlements? Yes.

Must we be grateful for scraps masquerading as justice in such abominations as uncovered toilets? No.

What we should be is honest. Let us not labour under the delusion of individualism that leads people to believe they can attribute all their fortune to their personal efforts.

As a general principle, we know that structure enables certain forms of expression to thrive over others.

As honest South Africans, we also know that the grand moment that was 1994 restructured society to validate a wider range of identities and new forms of expression.

The justice dividend has been the corrective measure responsible for our experiences of freedom.

Its imperfections are nevertheless clear and therein lies the opportunity to exercise our agency.

It is in the spirit of responsible citizenship that the question is asked: what has your justice dividend yielded and how are you working to spread those benefits?

For this much is true: the giants on whose shoulders you stand are desperately in need of reprieve.

n Mthembi is an entrepreneur in the renewable energy sector. She writes in her personal capacity as a commentator.


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