This day was established by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2007 based on principles such as equity, democracy, transparency, inclusion and accountability. As a Member State of the UN, South Africa admirably acknowledges its obligation to promote and protect social justice in its Constitution, whereby the nation is bound to “establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. More recently, South Africa ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which also obliges the State to provide for the active protection and realisation of socio-economic rights (SERs).

The Bill of Rights, contained in the Constitution, adds resonance to social justice through the inclusion of socio-economic rights, such as the access to adequate housing, health care and social security. While these socio-economic rights are largely qualified by phrases such as “progressive realisation” as well as “within available resources”, South Africa’s efforts at achieving social justice for many of its citizens remain troubling. This is evidenced by the frequency of community protests, which are largely driven by government’s failure to ensure effective (and in some cases, any) service delivery. According to research conducted by the University of Johannesburg’s Social Change Research Unit, there has been a reported 96% increase in incidents of unrest in South Africa since 2010. This figure is alarming. The majority of these incidents are fuelled by frustration on the part of the affected communities – of which a large number consists of unemployed youth. The protests are about the lack of or poor service delivery, in areas such as housing, water and sanitation, education, health and corruption.

The Constitution creates an imperative for the achievement of equality, as well as the protection, promotion and realisation of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights – which includes alleviating those burdens resulting from poor service delivery. Local authorities are thus instrumental in the realisation of socio-economic rights.

As such, the government, in fulfilling its constitutional and international obligations, should appoint appropriately qualified individuals to the relevant positions in the corresponding institutions and government departments. All too often, service delivery protests mask the underlying inability of municipalities to function efficiently, due to a shortage of capable personnel. This is something recognised by the National Planning Commission as being a threat to the realisation of constitutional goals. The proper auditing of municipal functions and spending should be paramount, so as to curb corruption and to guarantee that resources are being directed at the appropriate demographic. This is evident in light of the Auditor General’s local government audit outcome report for 2012/2013. The report states that the lack of consequences for continued transgressions and the failure to address obvious shortcomings led to a lack of service delivery and a flagrant transgression of laws and regulations in many municipalities.

A corollary of the unrest arising out of poor service delivery is often the heavy-handed approach of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in curbing or discouraging these protests. Often times, the SAPS are ill equipped to deal with crowd control, and their actions exacerbate already fragile social relations within communities. Statistics indicate an inability not only on the part of government to address the rights of the communities, but also on the part of the police service to assist when the communities exercise their constitutionally enshrined right to picket. As seen recently, protest action over resource allocation in Malamulele in Limpopo lasted over six weeks. During this time five schools were reportedly set alight, and the SAPS were forced to quell often-violent protests.

While South Africa may have limited resources, coupled with competing demands, the fact remains that the State is failing to ensure social justice for its citizens. It is also true that groups most lacking in socio-economic rights are increasing, putting considerable strain on available resources. This should not be an excuse. The realisation of socio-economic rights does not permit a government to simply cite a lack of resources as an excuse for failure. The UN obliges State Parties to the ICESCR to show the measures taken in compliance with its provisions. The Executive must remain accountable to its electorate and strive to ensure that it does not lose sight of its duty to not only protect everyone in South Africa, but to do so in a manner prescribed by the Constitution. Where this is not possible, the Executive must ensure that transparency is exercised in explaining the reasons for falling short of both its constitutional and international obligations.

It is therefore on this World Day of Social Justice – and every other day of the year – that South Africans should indeed heed the United Nations’ call to coordinate “concrete activities” that assist in securing the principles that promotes social justice. In so doing the Executive should be held accountable for the realisation of socio-economic rights.

 By Rebecca Sibanda: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights