Rhodes marks World Day of Social Justice

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It was posters bearing this quote by Margaret Mead which launched the World Day of Social Justice on Monday, the first time the UN-declared day has been marked by Rhodes University.

Rhodes University International Office Director, Ms Orla Quinlan, explains that Social Justice is an important and current global theme. Furthermore, it encompasses many academic and student interests. As a place “where leaders learn,” opportunities must be created for multi-disciplinary discussions on important cross-cutting issues such as social justice.

The roots of this day lie in the World Summit for Social Development which was held in Copenhagen in 1995, and which resulted in the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action. Political leaders pledged to work towards the conquest of poverty and the goal of full employment, and to creating stable, just and safe societies.

In November 2007 the UN General Assembly named February 20 as the annual World Day of Social Justice defined as follows:

“Social Justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants.

“We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability. For the United Nations, the pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission to promote development and human dignity.”

While this definition goes a long way, there are omissions. “It is only recently that the UN has acknowledged sexual orientation as an issue” noted Psychology lecturer, Ms Natalie Donaldson, in her talk entitled “Gays and Lesbians - Are We Human After All?”

Ms Donaldson looked at articles of another UN Declaration, that of Human Rights, and discussed ways in which the protection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people could be regarded as implicit within them. Her talk was both thought-provoking and sombre, with the reminder that homosexuality remains punishable by death in eight countries, with 76 others applying harsh laws against LGBT people. 

The paradoxes of environmentally sustainable practices that might not be accepted as “socially just” by local communities were debated in a discussion, led by Prof Rob O’Donoghue and Clayton Zazu, hosted by the Education and Learning Resource Centre.

Mr Richard Pithouse from Rhodes Political Department commented on the nature of social movements, following a screening of the film “Rise like Lions,” organised by the Students for Social Justice, which provided “a radical, compelling and inspiring account of what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about” (Ron Jacobs).

Social Justice displays in the Rhodes Library and Eden Grove Lecture Complex (which continue next week) provided information on the Millennium Development Goals, the Human Development Index and the shocking extent of current human trafficking. Relevant TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks were played. Students were reminded to sign up for community engagement activities by February 24th.

Ms Quinlan hopes that even more academics will participate in 2013 “perhaps integrating a social justice topic into lectures scheduled for 20th February 2013, from the ‘lens’ of their own disciplines”. The World Day of Social Justice talks and displays reached out to the student and staff alike with their mix of information and provocation encouraging debate around the issue of what is and who is entitled to Social Justice.

By Jeannie McKeown

Photo: From l-r: Director of the CSD, Ms Vera Adams and International Office Director, Ms Orla Quinlan.

Photo: supplied