Featured Human Rights

Social Justice in South Africa – Country and Society

The country they were fighting for

In the context of World Social Justice Day on the 20th of February, Stellenbosch University streamed a lecture called “Is this the country we were fighting for?”[1]. The keynote speaker was Justice Albie Sachs. Justice Albie Sachs was a lawyer during Apartheid and began to fight for justice in South Africa at a very young age.[2] But Justice Albie Sachs is not just a lawyer. He was appointed to the first constitutional court of South Africa, and he also played an important role in South Africa’s freedom struggle.

Asked during the lecture, if South Africa now is the country he was fighting for, he answered with a clear yes. But, and this is important, he made a distinction between the country and the society. He said that South Africa is the country he was fighting for, but society is not.

What should we take from this? South Africa has one of the, if not the most, liberal and most progressive constitutions, in particular in terms of the bill of rights, but still its people are not able or willing to use it to the extent they were supposed to. From time to time, I hear and on social media, I read that people of all ethnic backgrounds say things were better during Apartheid. As a German, I am astounded. I grew up decades after the end of the Second World War, and somehow Germany managed to be a free country. I grew up as a free person. As a child, I was not able to realise what a huge thing freedom is. The older I get the more I can value it. And I don’t know why some South Africans really would give up freedom instead of standing up for their granted rights. I can’t find an answer and whenever I try to figure it out, people tell me that things were more stable, they had work, the electricity grid was stable, they had food on the table, had a place to live, the crime rate was lower, they had no fear going out in the dark or even during daytimes.

That all might be right, but at what price did it come? It came at the price of suppression for most people. They were not even seen as citizens of the country. People might not realise they would trade it for the freedom to be treated equally, the freedom to vote, the freedom to have a say in what the government does, and the freedom to hold the government accountable for what they do. It seems that they tend to romanticise the past.

Freedom Charter, the Bill of Rights and lived reality

South Africa’s Constitution has an exemplary Bill of Rights which grants freedom and is the basis for the country’s way to equality. The Bill of Rights has its roots in 1955. Back then, people all over the country with different personal backgrounds were asked what they wanted their freedom to be like. The result was the Freedom Charter[3], a document with 10 points that were later reflected in the constitution. Back in 1955, Albie Sachs already fought for freedom in South Africa, and he was one of the drafters of South Africa’s Constitution. Therefore, he should be one of the people who know what people were fighting for in their liberation struggle. And in the lecture, he stated it clearly: The country South Africa is what he was fighting for.

Again, why is this current society not the one he was fighting for? What are the reasons for South Africa seeming to be more divided than before? What is the actual society he was fighting for? One must look closely into the Freedom Charter, to understand what he means.

The country he and others were fighting for was one in which every person has equal rights, where everyone has the right and the opportunity to get education, people should govern, and all should have the same human rights. These points are enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution. But still, people do not feel it equally. According to Chatterjee, Czajka and Gethin wealth inequality did not significantly change in the past-Apartheid years until 2017.[4] Furthermore, the lived realities are far from a just society. In the fourth quarter of 2022, 32,7% of South Africa’s citizens were not employed[5] – most of them are black South Africans[6]. Youth unemployment (15 to 24 years of age) was at 61% and the cumulated age group of 15 to 34 years of age was unemployed at 45,3%.[7] So how, must one ask, how will we ever see something close to equality in South Africa?

Importance of education

Equality is more than just the same right written down for everyone. It is not having a right to this or that. Equality and therefore social justice are things a society must work and also fight for. From my perspective, South Africa foremost needs to find a solution for its educational crisis as I would call it because a better education led to a higher employment rate in the past.[8] Higher employment leads to higher participation. And it also is necessary that people understand that a right also comes with duties. Having the right to education does not mean that one is automatically entitled to get graduation. One must work for it. But if one has the capacity to study and is a bright mind, this person must have the opportunity to study, no matter of the financial means. Still, in 2020, the education of a child was directly linked to personal and ethnic background.[9] As long as it is not ensured that also previously disadvantaged people in South Africa will really have equal access to education, there will be inequality, and there will be a division between peoples of ethnic origins based on the injustice of the past. And as long as education is not accessible for every person injustice will remain.

Freedom and rights came on paper, but people did not have an equal economic starting point. South Africa started off with the existing wealth distribution based on what Apartheid left. Although in section 25 of South Africa’s constitution provisions are made for redistribution of land as the 1913 Natives Land Act led to the expropriation of land,[10] there was nothing done in early democratic years and barely is now. Still today, the poorest people in South Africa are the ones whose population groups were oppressed during Apartheid.[11] Also, governmental efforts by enacting legal frameworks did not lead to a closure of these gaps. It is not sufficient to just write something down and wait for time to do the rest. Giving a right does not mean leaving society alone with it, and having a right also does not mean a lot in the first place. People need to be able to use and actually use and defend these rights. From my perspective, one of the biggest mistakes the South African government made after the end of Apartheid was not taking people on the journey. South Africans wanted freedom and democracy. And they got freedom and democracy. This is a huge achievement.

But democracy also must be nourished. That means people must be educated to be able to live in their democracy and know of the advantages. Today, people do not see and feel the advantages of democracy and their freedom because inequality prevails sustainably in South Africa and people lose their hope for a better future. This is, from my perspective, because there was a will for freedom, justice and democracy, but there was never a reset and therefore fair starting point. People did not learn how to live with their freedom and democracy, or how to use it properly. And the government – until now – did not implement the rights completely.

What will future be like?

As long as people have to worry about how to put food on their table, and as long as there is a “no work no pay”-policy and no social security system in place, as long as people do not have equal access to education, as long as corruption is found in so many parts of the country, and as long as legal claims take years to be finalised and criminal justice also is barely undertaken, not much will change in South Africa.

Unfortunately, the current situation leads, understandably, to an “us vs. them”-thinking, poor vs. rich and in the consequence – based on ethnics, history, and background – often black vs. white. Both sides do not feel valued and not supported enough.

Due to legal reasons, there is a daily distinguishment between different ethnicities. For example, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act requires a daily reference to ethnic background. The idea to force companies to employ more of the previously disadvantaged people would have been a good one if parallelly these population groups were in fact empowered in terms of education and living standards to the extent that society could have become closer to equality. But one can ask if this legislation is still necessary because of people’s prejudices and the past or because of government’s failure to implement the constitutionally granted rights, to educate equally and to therefore close the poverty gaps within the last nearly 30 years.

Today, the gap between different population groups seems to be bigger than at the time, when the struggle united people. After the end of Apartheid, the state was formed, but society was on its own. It seems that different parts of the society took different paths and didn’t come together anymore – in my opinion, because they weren’t led through the transformation that was not finished with the finalisation of the new constitution.

The government urgently needs to find an answer to the country’s society’s increasing division. Because for the country Albie Sachs was fighting for it is crucial to have a unified society so that it is possible to sustainably fight South Africa’s rising problems.

Otherwise, the land will stay segregated, and Ubuntu, which is usually translated to humanity and that calls for a unified society, will be nothing more than a nice word, used to show the beautiful tourism South Africa – but never will reflect real life.

[1] Stellenbosch University Streaming, ‘Justice Albie Sachs: Social Justice & the Constitution’ <> accessed 21 February 2023

[2] Constitutional Court of South Africa, ‘Justice Albie Sachs’ <> accessed 03 March 2023

[3] Department of Education, ‘Freedom Charter’ (2005) p 12 f. <>, accessed 3 March 2023

[4] Aroop Chatterjee, Léo Czajka, Amory Gethin, ‘Wealth Inequality in South Africa, 1993-2017’ (2021) 16 halshs-03266286 <>, accessed 1 March 2023

[5] Department of Statistics South Africa, ‘Quarterly Labour Force Survey – Quarter 4: 2022 (2023) <> 24, accessed 28 February 2023

[6] id., 24

[7] id., 26

[8] id., 14

[9] Amnesty International, ‘Broken and unequal – The State of Education in South Africa’ (2020) p.7 <> accessed 1 March 2023

[10] South African Government, ‘Land Reform’ <>, accessed 03 March 2023

[11] Department of Statistics South Africa, ‘South Africa Poverty and Inequality Assessment Report’ (2018) <> 13, accessed 28 February 2023


  • Nicole Kroppenstedt

    Nicole Kroppenstedt is a PhD Student at the Chair of African Legal Studies at University of Bayreuth. She holds a Diploma in Business Administration and an LL.M. from the Hamburger Fern-Hochschule. Currently living in South Africa, she researches on South African development as well as opportunities to overcome inequalities.

By Nicole Kroppenstedt

Nicole Kroppenstedt is a PhD Student at the Chair of African Legal Studies at University of Bayreuth. She holds a Diploma in Business Administration and an LL.M. from the Hamburger Fern-Hochschule. Currently living in South Africa, she researches on South African development as well as opportunities to overcome inequalities.

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