Not apart

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

It’s strange to think that there may be young adults that are not familiar with the name Nelson Mandela or the accomplishments that go with it. When I was growing up, his name was synonymous with heroism, with hope, with the struggle against apartheid. Now, some three decades after the legal structure of apartheid in South Africa was dismantled, the specter of its injustice is no longer as commonly known as it once was – even while tendrils of the same type of oppression, in all-too familiar forms, retain their grip in many other places around the world. Last Sunday, July 18, was Nelson Mandela International Day, and it’s as good an opportunity as any to reflect on the nature of the injustice brought about by the apartheid system, and why the need to fight against such inequality remains today.

Apartheid is a word that means “apartness” in the Afrikaans language, and it was both an ideology and a system of legislation that institutionalized segregationist policies against non-white citizens of South Africa. Citizens were required by law to be registered according to their race, prohibited from inter-racial marriage, disenfranchised from voting and the land was divided amongst them unequally with only a small percentage allotted for the majority black population. Many lost their homes and were shipped off to undeveloped locations far from their places of work. The forceful separation of racial groups – even if that meant displacing non-whites from their homes – led both to grossly unequal development and the abuse of State power to enforce this separation.

For its time, apartheid epitomized the unjust State. It was created after World War 2, where the horrors of the Holocaust had done much to awaken humanity to the evils of prejudice and racism. It was easy for most to see why – it was a system that institutionalized inequality and did not bother to hide it.

And yet, in spite of the clear injustice of apartheid, it remained in place for more than four decades.

Mr. Mandela was right – no one is born hating another. Hatred and discrimination are learned… but that learning begins almost as soon as we are out of the womb. We are born into a world where the inequalities are clear and stark, and often accepted as unalterable facts of reality. And to be fair, the diversity of humanity – the myriad ways that we exist and live – inevitably leads to differences in circumstances. In many ways, we celebrate these differences in appearance, in cuisine, in art and music. A world of perfect equality would be a world of perfect sameness, and that would not be a world which most of us would like to live in.

And yet clearly, as we can see from our instinctual reaction to something like apartheid, there are some inequalities that are fundamentally wrong, which form the core of what we consider to be unjust. In reflecting on the nature of apartheid, and the characteristics, which made it irredeemably unjust, it should be clearer in our minds what forms of inequality we must resist, protest and eliminate.

When inequality is based on arbitrary divisions, it impinges our sense of fairness. Even as children, we learn to complain if we suspect favoritism by an authority figure or are prohibited from doing something that our identical peers are allowed to do. When we see decisions made not on the basis of merit but because of how a person looks, or where they’re from, or matters beyond their control that have no relevance to the award or benefit being considered, we know it is unwarranted.

When inequality results in benefit to the privileged at the cost of harm to the most vulnerable, we recognize it as unfair. Part of acknowledging each other as human beings is recognizing that we all have to share the limited resources available on the planet. This is not a claim that everyone should have the same amount, but instead a commitment to the ideal that if it’s possible for everyone to have enough, then everyone should have a right to at least that much.

When inequality hinders access to basic human rights, it dehumanizes. When a person can be deprived of their rights to property, to travel, to privacy and even to life merely because of an accident of birth or a capricious label imposed by another, we do both the victims and ourselves a disservice and undermine our common dignity.

Above all, when inequality is created and maintained by the laws and institutions of the State, it becomes all the more reprehensible. In the preamble of our Constitution, we proclaim that we seek to secure for ourselves “the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality and peace” and there’s a reason that we use those words in conjunction. Without one of those elements, the others are an illusion – without equality there can be no justice, no peace. The rule of law and its attendant principles – chief amongst these that all are deemed equal before it – exist to protect and cultivate those elements, which are necessary to create a just society. When laws are instead subverted to create inequality, when police and military might are used to maintain it, then this is the very anti-thesis of what a State should be.

The apartheid in South Africa may have been abolished, but the inequalities that characterized it remain. The hatred and prejudice that motivate it continue to thrive around the world, sometimes in the shadows, and other times brazenly in our faces. The targets may be different, at least in our own country, but the harm is the same.

The struggle continues: we must teach ourselves to see the humanity in others, to safeguard the fundamental rights of every person and to secure the government against attempts to subvert it from its true purpose.

Now, more than ever, we must learn to live together and not apart.

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