Dignity and rights help us overcome poverty and exclusion


Every year on 17 October, people around the world pause to observe the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The theme for this year is “Coming together with those furthest behind to build an inclusive world with universal respect for human rights and dignity”.

The focus on poverty and exclusion in the context of human rights and human dignity is motivated by the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is seventy years old in 2018. This year’s theme is to be supported strongly, since poverty and exclusion is indeed a global human dignity and human rights matter. Billions of people in developing and developed countries experience socio-economic exclusion. This exclusion occurs with and on the African continent more than anywhere else. And post-apartheid South Africa is no exception.

Some social scholars describe continents like Africa as contexts of sub-modernity – those who are excluded from the positive fruit of ambivalent modern political and socio-economic arrangements. Millions of illiterate, semi-schooled and inappropriately-schooled Africans and disadvantaged people from other continents experience that they are redundant in a globalised economy that asks for knowledge and skills for a so-called tertiary economy of information and communication technology and a variety of highly sophisticated services. Those who were required for agricultural and manufacturing economies are less needed by the new economy. These people from so-called Third World countries are even described as surplus people.

A sociologist like Manuel Castells describes Africa as the Fourth World, because it is the continent that experiences the highest level of socio-economic exclusion. In Conversations with my sons and daughters, South African public intellectual, and former senior official of the World Bank, Mamphela Ramphele describes the growing levels of socio-economic exclusion as one of South Africa’s  major public challenges.

Despite the transition to democracy 25 years ago, and the positive political and macro-economic changes, millions of South Africans are still excluded from the basic necessities and goods of life, and from the opportunity to participate in building a new society. In fact, for many South Africans the current situation is more desperate than during apartheid. The levels of poverty and inequality have increased to such an extent that we now have the highest Gini-coefficient (the measure of income inequality) in the world. And although white people still enjoy more socio-economic privileges, the gap between rich and poor does not run along colour lines exclusively any longer.

The challenge of poverty and socio-economic exclusion constitutes a human dignity and human rights challenge. Unsurprisingly, Nigerian scholar Wole Soyinka, in Climate of fear, uses words like anti-humanism, reduction in self-esteem, nullification of human status, humiliation, assault on dignity to describe the violation of dignity on the African continent.

The actualisation of dignity is served by the quest to implement and fulfil human rights. This is also a point made by the German public intellectual Jürgen Habermas who, in his work The crisis of the European Union. A Response, discusses, among others, the connection between human dignity and human rights.

Dignity, which is the foundational value in the South African and German Constitutions,  provides a moral thrust to human rights discourses. Dignity shows that rights are required where people experience exclusion from justice and freedom. The moral thrust that dignity provides to human rights discourses paves the way for a twofold involvement in the fulfilment of rights, namely one driven by the conscience of individuals, and the other one driven by the institutional formulation of positive law. This individual and institutional (constitutional) work for the fulfilment of rights provides to human rights discourse the dimension of what Habermas calls a realistic utopia. Rights are no longer deceptive images of a social utopia which guarantees collective happiness, but they are anchored in the institutions of constitutional states themselves.

Habermas also refers to other, related, implications of the basing of human rights in human dignity. Grounding rights in dignity ensures that we do not talk in abstract terms about rights. Rights need to be spelled out in concrete terms in each particular concrete situation. This orientation to the concrete, specific and particular paves the way for dialogue and compromise-seeking in situations where rights are in conflict, and where we deal with incommensurable irreconcilable, situations. Dignity, therefore, supports human rights discourses and judicial decision-making, especially in pluralistic societies where incommensurability might surface more regularly.

Dignity provides a concreteness to human rights discourses that ensure that the cause of suffering and wronged individuals and groups find their way into the texts of bills of rights and into legal texts. Human dignity helps to exhaust the potential of current rights and to construct new ones. Like a seismograph it registers what is constitutive for a democratic legal order.

Because human dignity has to do with all dimensions of rights, basing rights in dignity ensures that the three dimensions or generations of rights (political and civil, socio-economic, developmental and environmental) receive attention. Habermas argues that socio-economic rights should be viewed as of equal value to more classical civil and political rights. South African legal scholars like Thuli Madonsela, Sandy Liebenberg and their former colleague at Stellenbosch University, the late Andre van der Walt, have done sterling work to advance the implementation of socio-economic rights.

The quest for rights involves the three aforementioned dimensions of rights with regard to development and the natural environment. Especially the developmental and environmental   rights affirm that human dignity and human rights discourses always takes place in the context of the integrity of creation. The notion of the integrity of creation entails that human life and natural life are integrated and interdependent, and that nature has inherent integrity, worth and value.

Acknowledging, affirming, advancing and actualising dignity and human rights, especially socio-economic rights, helps us immensely to overcome poverty in a sustainable way.

Professor Nico Koopman is the Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.