Poverty threatens reconciliation, warns Former Chief Justice Langa
The high level of poverty and large wealth gap in South Africa pose a serious threat to democracy, the rule of law and national reconciliation, Former Chief Justice Pius Langa warned last night [30 May 2011] at a Colloquium on Law and Poverty hosted by Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Law Faculty.
“Not enough attention has been paid to the subject of poverty, and even less to its eradication. Many just throw up their hands in despair; others simply accept it as a fact of life that South Africa and the continent will never be able to rid ourselves of this problem. This is extremely dangerous,” he said.
“Without economic security and independence, individuals will be unable to realise individual freedom and express themselves freely in the social and political sphere. They will be unable to educate themselves, and culture and civil society cannot flourish. Individuals will find themselves turning to crime and violence and disrespect the legal system.
“I am convinced that as long as we allow this very wide gap to exist between the poorest of the poor and the most affluent in our country, the reconciliation that will facilitate our development as a nation will remain a pipe dream,” Langa said.
Earlier, Prof Sandra Liebenberg, who occupies the HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at SU, pointed out that 49% of the population live below the poverty line of R524 per month, and 50% of young people aged 16-24 are unemployed.
Last night, Langa said: “I have walked among the shacks and I have seen little children without food. I have asked myself what the real meaning is when the Constitution refers to human dignity and equality, to social justice and to improving the quality of life of every citizen and to freeing the potential of each person.
“The poorest of the poor have also walked, and looked at what we throw away in our dirt bins. Poverty speaks to our history, to where we come from. We fight poverty because we aim to correct a past that went horribly wrong.”
Aside from South Africa’s race-based economic imbalances due to apartheid, Langa listed “fiscal mismanagement and corruption” among the causes of poverty.
He ascribed the spate of service delivery protests before the recent municipal elections to people “flexing their muscles and voicing their dissatisfaction rather volubly against their political leaders.”
He also called on civil society to hold the government accountable and “expose them when they fail to uphold the requirements of these [Constitutional] values.”
“True leadership means putting people first,” Langa said.
He was appointed as one of 10 founding members of the Constitutional Court in 1994, and was Chief Justice from 2005 until his retirement in 2009. He is currently on the bench of the Supreme Court of Namibia.
“Justice Langa is committed to the rule of law, not to politics or a party. The integrity and independence of our highest court is part of his legacy,” Prof Gerhard Lubbe, Dean of the Law Faculty, said.
The Colloquium is a project of the Faculty’s initiative on Combating Poverty, Homelessness and Socio-Economic Vulnerability under the Constitution. It forms part of the HOPE Project, a University-wide programme through which major developmental challenges in society are being tackled, Prof Russel Botman, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, said earlier.
“There is hope,” Langa said last night. “Projects and gatherings like this encourage us to exert ourselves sufficiently to eradicate poverty from our midst.”
The Colloquium ends today. Papers delivered will be published in a special edition of the Stellenbosch Law Review later this year and in book form by Juta early next year, co-organiser Mr Gustav Muller said.
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