Running through the Constitution, alongside equality, justice and freedom, is the idea that every South African has inherent dignity, which must be the basis on which they are treated regardless of which side of the good and evil, wealth and poverty scales they may fall. Each member of the human race is owed respect and equal treatment by all the other members purely due to the fact that they have dignity, which ensures them equality among others and permits them the extension of human rights.
But what does it mean to have dignity on an everyday, existential basis? What does it mean for our efforts to build a democratic South Africa together? This is one of the most prominent questions in South Africa today. The question is underpinned by at least two assumptions that I’ve never heard questioned:
1. That we know what dignity is and what it looks like; and
2. That our country's people do not have dignity.
Before venturing to answer the question, it is therefore important to explore the accuracy of these two assumption, and therefore the value of even answering the question. Dignity is a quality that is rather difficult to define and/or describe. It is an intangible quality, one that is both fungible and fluid. Arriving at a precise definition of dignity is difficult at best. For that reason, the first step is defining dignity.
A definition of dignity is linked to the idea of equality. If equality is “the state of being equal in status, rights and opportunities”, then dignity is the quality that makes everyone deserving of equality. Dignity is the inherent quality that makes every single human being valuable to themselves and to the rest of us, regardless of the things they do and/or say. It is the thing that places a responsibility on all of us to respect each individual life from birth to death and prioritise caring for human life above all other things.
Additionally, if we assume it to be a self-evident truth that every person has inherent human dignity, then the idea of restoring people's dignity is not what we are actually seeking to achieve. You cannot restore to someone something they already have. What is needed is the recognition that the person already has that quality and to treat them as such. It is therefore possible to conclude from the above that what we actually mean to do is to recognise, not restore, every person’s inherent dignity.
If dignity is that which makes each one of us as valuable as the next person, and if everyone inherently has dignity, then we do not need to do any work to restore people’s dignity. What we want is for people to recognise that everyone has dignity and to treat them as such. It is a basic call to see every South African as human, not animal, and affording them the respect and honour fitting for a human being. My sense is that the call for the restoration of dignity is in fact a call to reverse the effects of three and half centuries of deliberately pushing forward a white supremacist narrative that positions Black people as sub-human. I think it unlikely that we wouldn't be able to find solutions to the socio-economic challenges facing South Africa if we were able to see and treat each other as human beings with inherent dignity.
If we are to build our nation into a truly democratic republic where every voice is heard and listened to and ensure that every South African fully enjoys the rights and freedoms promised to them in our constitution, we must aim to ensure that each one has an opportunity to fulfil their potential and live a life of dignity.
Thulani Madinginye iS the co-founder of the Real Talk initiative, an initiative that brings South Africans together for positive change. http://www.realtalk.org.za
The In Good Company column is managed by the Nation Builder initiative, www.proudnationbuilder.co.za.