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Minister Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget policy speech therefore came as a breath of fresh air, brimming as it did with big ideas such as social justice, a fair society, inclusive economic growth, and (although the term is not used as such in the speech) inclusive, growth-enhancing transformation. It is almost as if he took up American first lady Michelle Obama’s advice: “When they go low, we go high.”

Had the speech been about South Africa’s politics in a wider sense, ideas such as the difference between a constitutional democracy and majoritarianism, and the importance of upholding the fundamental separation between party and state would probably also have had a look-in.

It would be easy to downplay the ideas raised, in particular social justice, as abstract and of a philosophical nature with little practical import.1 But that would be ducking the responsibility to engage with crucial questions challenging South African society at a point in time when it is being confronted by the reality of the post-1994 transition not having been completed.

Perhaps we should just start off with the concept of social justice crudely defined as having to deal with “how the good and bad things in life should be distributed among the members of a human society”.2 It is my contention that, even if it is only because we have not explicitly applied our minds to the question, we all have some understanding of what social justice requires of us. How we engage with matters such as transformation and inclusivity will inevitably be informed by our understanding of social justice. Our prejudices, for example, do not appear out of thin air but are formed by some kind of reasoning.

1“Some believe that the pursuit of social justice is a snare and a delusion and that we should be guided by other ideals - personal freedom, for instance. Among those who support it, it is not at all clear what the idea means. Often it seems little more than a rhetorical phrase used to add luster to some policy or proposal that the speaker wants us to support. People may be committed to social justice in the abstract, and yet disagree bitterly about what should be done about some concrete social problem.” Miller (1999), p. ix
2Miller (1999), p.1

It is therefore necessary that at least some of us apply our minds to how we should understand social justice in South Africa today. Minister Gordhan has seemingly done just that, and not for the first time do I have the impression that, in this endeavor, he is to a large extent guided by the thinking of the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, as set out in the latter’s book, The Idea of Justice.3 Sen in turn was influenced by the political philosopher John Rawls (to whom he dedicated his book), whose magnus opus, A Theory of Justice4, remains a ground text to this day.

Rawls’ thinking can be summarised in his concept of “justice as fairness”, which inter alia finds expression in the so-called “capabilities approach” in development economics, for which Sen is well known.

Rawls defines fairness as a demand for impartiality, viz. “a demand to avoid bias in our evaluations, taking note of the interests and concerns of others as well, and in particular the need to avoid being influenced by our respective vested interests, or by our personal priorities or eccentricities or prejudices”.5 For Rawls justice is to be achieved through just institutions.

Of particular relevance to a highly unequal society such as South Africa is Rawls’ second principle of justice, viz. that “social and economic inequalities... must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society”.6

From here it is a small step towards Sen’s contention that “in analyzing social justice, there is a strong case for judging individual advantage in terms of the capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value. In this perspective, poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather than merely as lowness of income” although “lack of income can be a principal reason for a person’s capability deprivation”. This approach “concentrates on deprivations that are intrinsically important (unlike low income, which is only instrumentally significant)”.7

Which takes us back to the medium-term budget policy speech and the minister’s wish for a “just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality”.

3Amartya Sen: The Idea of Justice. Allan Lane. 2009.
4John Rawls: A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. 1971. 5Sen (2009), p.54 6John Rawls, Political Liberalism, 1993, p. 291; quoted in Sen (2009), p.59 7Sen (1999), p.87

As mentioned above, the speech focuses on inclusive growth and inclusive transformation. To quote: “In actively correcting for the injustices of the past, we have a choice between extracting privilege and wealth for the few, or wider participation and broad-based empowerment.”

A recent study by the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank on inclusive growth in Europe argues that “Growth is considered inclusive if it provides opportunities for all segments of the population and shares them fairly. To understand inclusive growth, we must first understand inequality”.8It is self-evident that this observation is extremely pertinent to South Africa.

Minister Gordhan’s speech also did not shy away from the potential conflict between growth and transformation. I have argued in the past that South Africa needs a better balance between these objectives and that we should avoid growth being handicapped by transformation imperatives. It is therefore heartening to note the minister declaring that “We have a choice between approaches that merely transfer wealth and approaches that create new enterprises, new assets, new jobs and a more open growth path”.

Inclusive growth and transformation are rather seen as complementary to one another. Hence, inclusive growth is seen to mean opening up opportunities and broadening participation in an expanding economy, meeting the service delivery demands of marginalised communities (viz. addressing capability deficiencies), creating decent work prospects for all, and providing good-quality education at all levels to all communities.

Furthermore, inclusivity will be promoted by the quality of education, the pace and pattern of urbanisation and housing development, industrial development and the expansion of employment, trade and commerce, and social protection services, including access to healthcare and social security.

It would be easy to conclude that inclusive growth is merely about equality of opportunity and that, as long as all formal obstacles standing in the way of access to opportunities are removed for everybody, everything will be fine. However, it is not as simple as that. Bruegel states that “There is growing recognition that economic growth in itself does not provide equal opportunities to different segments of society. In most countries disadvantaged people find it difficult to progress”.9 In other words, before there can be equality of opportunity, the capability deficiency of the poor to which Sen refers must be addressed.

The most telling deficiency is to be found in education because of its importance for social mobility and employability, including self-employment. With the attention in South Africa currently being focused on higher education, it is appropriate to remind ourselves of the crucial importance of early childhood development for life chances.

8Darvas and Wolff (2016), p. 1
9Darvas and Wolff (2016), p. 9

The importance of institutions and economic structures for inclusivity is widely recognised. According to Minister Gordhan they depend “on laws and policies, on social networks and administrative systems, and how markets are organised. Education will contribute to equality, cities will promote social and economic mobility, markets will broaden opportunities and public services will meet the needs of all – if they are structured to be inclusive. We are enjoined to build inclusive institutions and an open, enterprise-based economy, including measures to redress discrimination and promote equality. But... we must reflect carefully: we need to confront long-standing inequalities and forms of domination without creating new ones; we need to widen opportunities without capitulating to opportunism”.

Minister Gordhan’s appeal to South Africans to engage with the ideas raised by him is an invitation to great-mindedness. Our challenge is fortunately not to try to create a perfectly just world by the stroke of a brush, but to continue moving incrementally towards greater justice and fairness by removing obvious distractions from true equality of opportunity. However, to have an open and honest national conversation about these important issues in which all South Africans feel themselves free to participate, the debate will have to be elevated above the level of party politics.


Darvas, Zsolt and Wolff, Guntram B. An Anatomy of Inclusive Growth in Europe. Bruegel. October 2016.
Gordhan, Pravin. Medium-term Budget Policy Speech. 26 October 2016.
Miller, David: Principles of Social Justice. Harvard University Press. 1999.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. 1971.
Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press. 1999.
Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice. Allan Lane. 2009.

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