Ninth Mandela Lecture, 23 July 2011.


This is a summary of the lecture:

“The Making of Social Justice: Pluralism, Cohesion and Social Participation” by Professor Ismail Serageldin.


Professor Serageldin broke his topic down into five parts:

  • Social Justice as the foundation of the state
  • Reflection on the meaning of justice
  • Freedom, rights and equity
  • Cohesion in the age of pluralism
  • Centrality of participation


Social Justice: The Foundation of the state

Social justice is the glue that holds a society together. When people rise up against their rulers, as is happening in the Middle East, to demand freedom and democracy, they are really demanding social justice as the basis for their society.


The Meaning of Justice

Human beings are social animals and to be cut off from social interaction is the worst form of punishment. Social interaction, however, requires fairness, which is synonymous with justice and encompasses freedom, equality and inclusion – all of which must form the basis of relationships. And because fairness depends on context, it has many connotations; even more in multicultural societies where each culture defines freedom, equality and justice in different ways. So “the social contract that unites the human family within its borders in a framework of citizenship” becomes much more difficult to articulate in a multicultural society.


Even when there are no considerations of multiculturalism, there are still individual differences that challenge the notion of equality; so we need to abandon the notion of equality and replace it with equity. Equality means being treated as though we are all the same; equity means recognising what is appropriate for the individual. In other words it is not simply a general application that may or may not have relevance. It has to be relevant, useful and in accordance with what one is entitled to.  



Freedom, Rights and Equity


“Freedom is about the ability to decide, the ability to choose.” Conditions that interfere with the freedom to decide and choose are: poverty, lack of education, illness and prejudice. “Excessive inequality is inefficient and is associated with a variety of ills.”


Those disempowered by a lack of understanding of human rights are usually poor, uneducated, and prone to illness, disability and discrimination. The society in which they live has failed in its responsibility to ensure that each individual acquires the capability of exercising human rights. Without such capabilities there can be no Social Justice.


“Justice in the sense of equity brings to mind that many things can be legal and correct but the outcomes of their rigorous application can remain unjust.” Therefore it is also necessary to temper justice with mercy.


Cohesion in the Age of Pluralism

Most societies have become multicultural but cultural pluralism is difficult to implement. The “melting pot idea” is attractive but it is “a negation of pluralism... as it exalts the uniformity of national values” and leads to homogeneity.


Cosmopolitanism, which “has almost disappeared” according to Professor Serageldin, embraced different communities “with distinct identities.” Their ability to engage in common activities and yet retain their own way of life, exemplified the kind of respect that underpins freedom and equity – the foundational pillars of social justice.


In multicultural societies today, however, pluralistic communities tend to slip “into exclusivity and hostility.”


“But youth and technology are coming to our rescue.” Social media have given rise to interaction that cuts across all barriers. But these are “shallower” interactions and too much time spent in front of the computer interferes with the development of relationships in the real world. Furthermore, through the internet, people may tend “to gravitate towards the specific outlets that support their points of view” and that could lead to prejudice “and more polarisation in debate.”


The knowledge revolution has led to a proliferation of information but not necessarily to wisdom. And wisdom is necessary to build societies founded in justice and mercy.


The Centrality of Participation.


“Participation is absolutely central to the properly functioning society. Participation promotes transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. It fights corruption and promotes efficiency in government.”


Poverty, stagnation and corruption are the results of low levels of participation in society. A study by Robert Putnam, 1993, showed that greater citizen participation led to growth and development. “It did not matter what form that participation took, from soccer clubs to choral societies, from school boards to art clubs, it was the intensity of social interaction in voluntary-based, horizontally-structured organisations – as opposed to being part of coercive hierarchical organisations – that made all the difference.”


“Now these powerful societal forces of democracy and human rights are like the deep, unseen ocean currents that govern the climate and shape our destiny. Many people focus on events that grab headlines and generate intense debate, but these are like surface storms that can sink ships and drown people, but they do not have the profound effects of the deep currents, they lack the staying power, the lasting effect that real societal change is based on.”


Serageldin summed up his lecture with the following quotation from Rabindranath Tagore:


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led by thee into ever-widening thought and action –

Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”