Ismail Lagardien: Dignity difficult to fathom

The Life Esidimeni hearings into the death of 143 mentally ill patients has drawn attention to the issue of dignity in society.

It also drew attention, at least in my mind, to how slippery the concept can be, and how, at the best of times, it serves as a portmanteau concept, in the sense that it may mean anything and everything to anyone at any time, in and out of several contexts.

This makes the concept rather weak, prone to manipulation and open to expedient cultural relativism.

While cultural relativism is not necessarily bad, to the extent that it gives equal weight to every person’s particular cultural beliefs and values, when a concept like “dignity” is cast, with willful singularity, across diverse cultures on the assumption that there is some sort of harmony of interests among all humans, it can become problematic.

Let alone the fact that everyone has their own idea of what dignity means.

Consider the expressed ideals of Adolf Hitler, one of the cruellest and probably the most evil dictator of the past century, in his address to the German parliament in 1941.

With his usual passion, Hitler told his compatriots that he had the “deepest veneration for the culture” of Germany, “from which,” he proclaimed, “the first light of beauty and dignity sprang”.

Joseph Stalin, another of the 20th century’s brutes, was emphatic, in 1947, when he said that any citizen of the Soviet Union who longed for “Western way of life” represented a “humiliation for our national dignity”.

How alike they seem, the communist Stalin and the anti-communist Hitler.

They are not alone in speaking of the dignity of their own people.

One of the truly great leaders of the past century, Mahatma Gandhi, believed in awakening the masses, “to a sense of their dignity and power” which could only be achieved “by enabling them to realise that they need not fear brute force”.

To bring us back to democratic South Africa, it is worth stating the following, somewhat lengthy passage by Nelson Mandela:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people.

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Everyone, the good, the bad and the unctuous, in particular, seem to have their own idea of what dignity means, and in this way dignity can become divisive.

I am pretty sure that most of us would disagree with Hitler and Stalin, and that many of us would agree with Gandhi and Mandela.

Towards some conclusion, then.

The mal-interpretation of dignity, as with so many other failures in the country, is not the fault of the constitution.

Section 10 of the Bill of Rights is as crisp and clear as possible: “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

In application, or in terms of what really happens, dignity, like justice, may be withheld by powerful people and meted out on the basis of any of the prejudices that prevail.

This much has been learnt from the Life Esidimeni hearings.

The constitution cannot be faulted for the failings of the public service.

Indeed, masses of evidence point to a fault line that runs directly across the body of public service.

That is gaped by a perversion of identity politics based on exclusion, the ordering of society along a typology of erstwhile oppression and privilege, strong and weak.

For example, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding, someone who is considered to be part of a group that has historically been denied justice or privileges, or who may have benefited more than another group, may, today, qualify for more or less justice and dignity.

What we have seen with the Life Esidimeni case is the arbitrariness in the application of constitutional guarantees of dignity with the most vulnerable of society barely having a share in the dignity dividend of our democracy.

In a press briefing on September 12, the arbitrator in the Life Esidimeni hearings, Justice Dikgang Moseneke, stated that the conduct of the 27 non-governmental organisations to which mentally ill patients were transferred was “most negligent and reckless, and showed a total lack of respect for human dignity, care and human life” and thus violated the constitution and other applicable legislation.

This is a clear case of the public service against the constitution.

What is also clear is that President Jacob Zuma and the ruling party have a larger share of the dignity dividend.

This is a president who faces 783 (alleged) counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering.

Yet, as the end times of Zuma’s presidency approaches, the speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, has appealed to South Africans to allow the leader of the ANC to “finish off his term in dignity”.

In the meantime, the secretarygeneral of the ANC Youth League, Njabulo Nzuza, insisted that party members had a “duty to protect the dignity” of the ANC.

Everyone, it seems, has an appeal for dignity, but some of us have a greater chance of dignity than others.

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