Creating a society of equals

People queue outside the Sassa offices in Victoria Street to receive social grants. Photo: Jason Boud

People queue outside the Sassa offices in Victoria Street to receive social grants. Photo: Jason Boud

Published Aug 12, 2014


A society’s attempts to uplift disadvantaged people may also end up erecting barriers to social equality, writes George Hull.


How can South Africa become a more equal society?

With wealth disparities widening and an official unemployment rate of 25 percent, one could be forgiven for referring this question to economists and taxation experts. But there is more to equality than redistributing pay cheques and title deeds.

The opposite of an equal society is a stratified society: a society of ranks, in which individuals occupy places in a hierarchy – of class, gender, caste or race – and are treated as superiors or inferiors accordingly. A society which aspires to equality aspires to disrupt and overturn hierarchy. The equal society is a society which has done away with all bowing and scraping, all fawning, all stepping off the pavement at the approach of a superior, all lowering of one’s eyes. The equal society is a society whose members meet each other on equal terms.

The case of South Africa shows all too plainly that, even when political and legal hierarchies are abolished, social hierarchy can remain largely intact. Once, it was the law which restricted the majority to manual labour, cleaning, waiting at table, and watching the cars and children of a manufactured elite. Today, accumulations of inherited wealth and connections, conjoined with persisting residential segregation, have much the same effect.

The equal society need not be a society whose members own equal amounts; but once economic disparities widen beyond a certain limit, they can create a society of ranks just as surely as laws do.

Members of society should be able to meet each other on equal terms because, despite our many differences, we all share a common humanity. Each of us has equal moral worth, meaning we are all equally deserving of respect. One consequence of this is that no one should be denied opportunities to achieve their aspirations for arbitrary reasons, having nothing to do with their ability.

When a person is unable to enjoy education and employment opportunities available to others because of an irrelevant factor such as their parents’ wealth, that person’s equal moral worth is denied.

Almost everyone would accept this point, even among the currently privileged – as evidenced by the flimsy stereotypes even many well educated people invoke to wish away the injustice.

“These people” – they say – are lazy, unreliable, devious, innately stupid, incapable of responsibility. In South Africa, an odour of racism clings to complaints about “these people”, but the same style of rationalisation is heard in societies divided along non-racial lines.

Still, not all the barriers to equal respect are economic. In South Africa, one barrier to equal respect is fear.

In a classic essay published more than 40 years ago, Bantu Steve Biko diagnosed fear as “an important determinant in South African politics”.

Though fear is no longer the policy of a terrorist state – as it was under the white-supremacist reign of BJ Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk – it is difficult to ignore what an important role fear continues to play in social relations.

Fear determines where people go, how they get there, who they talk to and what they say. And in too many encounters, the air still prickles with a palpable distrust.

The World Bank has no metric of distrust, nor indeed of respect; but that should not lead us to downplay the social significance of either.

When your word is perpetually doubted, when children are shepherded away from you, when your presence in public spaces is viewed with suspicion – each of these is a manifestation of disrespect: each a little humiliation. It would take greater reserves of strength than most of us possess to experience this treatment daily and not lose some of our sense of self-worth. The best defence against such treatment might well be an attitude of utter disdain for those who inflict it upon you. So disrespect breeds disrespect.

Paradoxically, a society’s attempts to uplift disadvantaged people may also end up erecting barriers to social equality.

Intrusive means testing for welfare benefits, for instance, can be demeaning – requiring shameful revelations – and can stigmatise welfare recipients, playing into a narrative of “these people” as, at best, feckless no-hopers who cannot “fend for themselves”, and, at worst, dishonest scroungers or “benefit cheats”.

Though some circumstances, such as disability, will almost always require individual assessment for need, universal benefits are clearly preferable when possible.

For example, a system of quality health care provision for all, free at the point of delivery, removes the need for the stigma and distrust associated with means testing. Social equality may also be, quite literally, good for us.

Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson’s findings on the social determinants of health suggest that more stratified societies, even when richer, frequently have poorer overall health than more equal societies. The costs of being at the bottom of a hierarchy are clear: lower self-esteem, poor sanitation, a greater willingness to take risks – even commit crimes – because of the dearth of opportunities.

Somewhat less obviously, being coddled and persistently treated as a superior can also have its costs, creating an unbearable burden of expectation, but also making those at the top of a hierarchy less able to empathise and connect with people.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission convinced him that even those who were privileged under apartheid had “lost out”, as “they became more uncaring, less compassionate, less humane and therefore less human”.

Achieving an equal society will require ongoing government interventions aimed at undoing hierarchy and replacing it with equal social relations. Many interventions will be economic – alleviating poverty and equalising opportunities, for instance.

Even addressing the social stratification caused by fear could require economic interventions, since fear is caused by crime, and crime is caused, at least partly, by material hardship. But different sorts of intervention, such as desegregation and affirmative action, are often also required to undo social hierarchies.

In other areas, governments cannot directly intervene to bring about change: for example, the change in attitudes which would enable a division of labour without a hierarchy of job status. Where interventions can be made by government, care must be taken to ensure they do not create new hierarchies through stigma.

In all of this, we must not think of economic redistribution as an end in itself, but rather as one of many necessary means to achieving a society of equals.

*Dr Hull is a lecturer in Philosophy at UCT and organiser of the UCT Social Equality Conference on August 15-17 (see or e-mail [email protected] for more details). At this conference, which is open to the public, internationally renowned scholars will speak on topics including racial equality, poverty and the Traditional Courts Bill.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Times

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