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25 years of democracy (part 3): Denial of dignity then and now

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25 years of democracy (part 3): Denial of dignity then and now

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

25th February 2019

By: Raymond Suttner

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“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”- from Preamble to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

“This Bill of Rights is a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. It enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.- Chapter 2 of South African Constitution, section 7 (1)

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Dignity is a central question in any struggle for freedom.  It is a fundamental attribute of freedom.  That is why it is one of the first words in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of 1996, it figures prominently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and in liberation discourse in South Africa and elsewhere.

Many people have been driven to fight for freedom, amongst other reasons, because of a sense that they or their parents or others were denied dignity or repeatedly experienced attacks on their dignity. There is something that evokes outrage in a denial of dignity.  There is pain in denial of dignity.  There is cruelty in denial of dignity.  There is humiliation in a denial of dignity.  Denial of dignity is an attack on a person’s humanity and sense of self-worth.

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Dignity is a wide-ranging and complex concept.  It cannot be separated from the character of relationships prevailing between people.  No person has or possesses dignity or is denied dignity or has an impaired sense of dignity in isolation from other people.  It is a relational concept.  When we say that a person bears herself with dignity, it is a comment on the way a person conducts herself.  But the notion of dignity that is used to make that judgment of what is appropriate and inappropriate, what is dignified in any context, is relational.  It is, dependent on the particular interaction within which a person acts, whether it is equal, hierarchical, free or coerced. 

It also often bears on a level of confidence that a person has attained through various interactions over time.  Acquiring or retaining confidence that translates into a sense of dignity is not something innate but learned or unlearned through experiences that reinforce a sense of self-esteem, a sense that one stands in a particular relationship to others, that enables one to bear oneself with the confidence and self-assurance.

Likewise, one cannot easily ensure a sense of one’s personal dignity when living in poverty, denied access to clean water and consequently unable to wash.  Nor do unemployed people generally have the means to present themselves in clothing that enable them to appear with the dignity that may make employability possible.  Dignity is mediated by unequal relationships and unequal access to resources for basic wellbeing.

Dignity and relationality

A person is a person because of other people, according to the proverb from which ubuntu is derived. Likewise, the denial of personhood is through the agency of human beings who perform actions or exist within relationships that create an impairment of or loss of personhood and dignity. Apartheid denied a range of rights, but it also demanded that people bear themselves in specific ways in relation to state authorities, especially police. 

That is not to say that an attack on people’s dignity always succeeded.  The intended victim sometimes deployed their agency to frustrate what was intended.  People did not automatically comply with what was demanded, not only by open defiance, but sometimes by feigning submission in order to achieve some or other goals.  The same person who may have appeared submissive in his or her behaviour, may well have presented that persona to those in authority over her, but acted rebelliously under cover, in a situation where open rebellion would have been short-lived.  In other words, acting out an undignified persona may simply have been presented in form, by acting it out without internalising a loss of dignity or accepting denial of full personhood.

But that sense of impaired dignity, of denial of independent selfhood or self-respect was often demanded not only by the state but by all in authority, notably employers who stood in an unequal relationship to workers and have expected and demanded that they be referred to as baas/boss, as well as heads of educational institutions and other structures where hierarchies of authority existed.

Continuities and ruptures in the denial of dignity.

Now apartheid died but it also did not die for authorities continue to practise insulting and aggressive behaviour towards black people, especially foreign Africans and poor people generally, who may not have homes and try to find shelter in shacks or under bridges and other makeshift arrangements. 

Police and often other officials of government departments continue to act in ways that deny people their dignity.  It is true that some sections of the civil service and the police will be rude to everyone, including whites. But it is mainly black people and the poor in general and notably foreign Africans who bear the brunt of this insulting behaviour.  Reference has previously been made to the treatment that black people receive at road blocks, generally targeted more often than whites.  One can see them people pulled out of cars and lying on the pavements being searched in full view of the public.

In consequence of continued inequality, there remains an expectation that many black people have that whites assume or anticipate they will be addressed in a particular, excessively respectful way. At petrol stations or in being asked for money at robots the way many people address me  appears to signify a loss of dignity on their part, attributing to me a status that I do not want to have, one that many whites demanded under apartheid and it entails a contortion of their persona on the part of the person who wants to win my favour.

This is sometimes found in a singing type of voice that is used to fawn over whites by some waiters and sometimes security officials and others.  It is quite hard to explain that someone’s behaviour is undignified, and not required, that there is no longer apartheid.  But the truth may be that apartheid does still exist in very many of the interactions that these people have with private individuals.

The question of dignity as a form of self-denial may continue even when the danger has apparently disappeared, or the threat is not overt but still possible and therefore remains a deterrent. Perhaps the persons who still practise this fawning do still experience harsh and insulting behaviour unless they grovel -from some people. Consequently, they tailor their behaviour to all or most people- in order to avert hurtful exchanges or when they want money to ensure that they will get it.

Again, the question of inequality is central, that some people continue to exercise power over others, power in relation to resources they distribute or deny or jobs and positions that it is in their power to dispense. 

Extra-state denial of dignity

Just as apartheid lives on in various practices of state departments, sometimes perpetrated against other black people by black officers, it also survives through practices in neighbourhoods.  Who lives where continues to relate to persistent inequality.  I live in a gated community or “enclosure”.  We are not part of the arrangement and have opposed it from the beginning. Insofar as people are stopped at the boom gate, it is very seldom that a white will be treated as suspicious but black people who may come on foot, may be whisked away because they are “loitering” or community members may discuss the problem of those who are “loitering”.  That is, people who are on public spaces, that private citizens in the neighbourhood have taken it upon themselves to zone off and to police and humiliate “intruders”.

Along with gating there is racial profiling. There are numerous WhatsApp groups in suburbia that send messages about suspicious “bravo” [black] men.  In other words, the construction of potential criminality by the police (whether white or black police) at the road blocks and community security groups continues to be that of blackness.  The messages sent to residents almost invariably concerns the suspicious character of black people, (never whites in my experience), driving or walking in these neighbourhood, with their cars identified if driving.  This racial profiling carries dangers in trigger happy societies like ours.  One woman remarked in one of these groups when some of us objected to the profiling, that she feared for those being identified could be her sons. (I have been expelled from this street group, when I challenged these practices).

What is interesting about racism after apartheid is that many people understand that overt racism is less acceptable and indeed punishable today. Consequently, their outlets rely on continuing inequality.  Apartheid will continue to have an afterlife so long as people interact on a hierarchical and unequal basis, with some living with plenty and others denied their basic needs.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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