It is not every day that the opportunity arises to spend time in the company of great South Africans, who are not just currently doing great things for our country and her people, but have a tried and tested track record of always working to improve our country and the living situations of all her people. Such an opportunity came along this past September, for me and hundreds of fellow South Africans and members of the British public, when Professor Thuli Madonsela joined the Development and Alumni Relations Office in visiting various constituencies in the United Kingdom (UK).
When asking Prof Thuli what her thoughts were on talking about social justice to a UK community, Prof Thuli had this to say: “I am looking forward to speaking in the UK and engaging with the UK community on the topic of social justice. In this fast-moving world, most societies, and political regimes, including those founded on democratic principles and ideals, struggle to achieve and maintain a balance between individual freedom and social justice. As we face increased economic and social pressures, inequality is expanding across all societies and so the need for social justice strengthens, and we must come together to find solutions."
It is uncanny, really, that what had been an occasion planned for the last three years, when finally set in motion, coincided with the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension to the throne of His Majesty King Charles III.
For us as South Africans, for Prof Thuli and our alumni, it was surreal that two of our events intersected – really making our time together one of true reflection as we were surrounded by these historic moments happening in a country not our own, but with whom we share a long and complicated history.
Our time with Prof Thuli began the Saturday that the Privy Council proclaimed Prince Charles as King – it was at this time that Prof Thuli along with 20 of the university's alumni were walking down the Pall Mall to Green Park, and happened to pass St. James' Palace. Unbeknownst to us, this was where the Privy Council and the future king of the United Kingdom would be. Well, we might not have known this, but the tens of thousands of other Londoners and visitors did –so even as we were taking a social walk with Prof Thuli to discuss #Action4Inclusion and social justice, we inadvertently got caught up in a moment of history – a poignant reminder to all of us on the walk of the work that Prof Thuli is engaged in at Stellenbosch University.
Later in Green Park, an opportunity to gather and reflect took place in the memorial garden set up for the public to pay their respects to the late queen, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – and again the moment will be etched in our memories, tied in with this historical moment of reflection as Prof Thuli spoke with us about what social justice is, why social justice is important and how imbalances create social dissolution and economic problems.
Our visit with Prof Thuli in the UK continued Monday morning bright and early at the SA Chamber of Commerce business breakfast hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, where Prof Thuli engaged with the in-person and online audience around the topic “What is Social Justice?".
Keeping Prof Thuli busy, we quickly moved on from the business breakfast to an intimate luncheon with donors of Stellenbosch University and Trustees of the SU Foundation in the UK – where the conversation centred on the work of the soon-to-be-launched Centre for Social Justice.
That evening, as the guest of Prof Adam Habib and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, Prof Thuli gave a public lecture in the Brunei Gallery as part of the Director's Lecture Series to guests of the SOAS and our alumni living in London. The lecture, “The Meaning of Social Justice", struck a positive chord and is available online.
Our time with Prof Thuli ended in Edinburgh as guests of the WS Society. The Society of Writers to His Majesty's Signet (known as the WS Society) (Scottish charity SC050987) is the incorporated body of Scottish lawyers that is more than 500 years old. They are one of the oldest incorporated bodies for public benefit in Scotland.
It was on this day and occasion that our second moment of being part of a historic moment occurred. The queen's body was lying in state in St Giles Cathedral, which was just across from our hotel. As we arrived in Edinburgh, unable to use taxis to get to our hotel, the four of us travellers from Stellenbosch traipsed up the Royal Mile (this in itself was a sight to behold if you know how steep that hill is). Unbeknownst to us, at that same time, Her Majesty's body would be departing St Giles Cathedral and be driven down the Royal Mile to be brought down to London. And so we found ourselves being part of extraordinary historic moments on both sides of this trip.
With so many exciting and contemplative things happening, we could not have asked for a better way to end our trip in the UK with Prof Thuli than by spending the evening with Prof Thuli as guests of the WS Society. Acclaimed international journalist, Meera Selva, spent time with Prof Thuli on the couch talking about the role of the media and the law fraternity in ensuring the safeguards of democracy and social justice. What really set the scene and tone for the evening was a group of young law interns who got to spend some quality Q&A time with Prof Thuli before the event started, and the welcoming address delivered by Lady Dorian, a Scottish advocate and judge who has served as the Lord Justice Clerk since 2016. She is the first woman to hold the position.
We embarked on this UK journey with the purpose of finding out what can we do in a world where the enormous gap in the distribution of wealth, income and public benefits is growing ever wider, reflecting a general trend that is morally unfair, politically unwise, and economically unsound. Injustices at international level have also produced a parallel increase in inequality between affluent and poor countries.
How do we then address existing inequalities? Is the nature, legitimacy and use of power fully understood by those who are privileged to hold political and administrative power globally? What is their understanding of self-interest, enlightened self-interest, general interest and the common good? What can each of us do to reduce inequalities in matters within our control such as student debt? These are the questions we asked of all our audiences across the UK in these few days.
One can only believe in the best of humanity and trust that each one of the 500 people we encountered on this trip and who heard the message will do their best to help create a just world for all.