What’s so great about equality?

by Grace Garland | Published on 25 September 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

In South Africa, and indeed probably any democracy around the world, the idea of ‘equality’ is held up as a core goal for society. This is not new. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato thought that justice was the highest virtue, and that anything inequitable is unjust and anything equitable is just. Revolutionaries in France in 1789 thought that equality belonged with liberty and fraternity as the founding principles of their envisioned post-monarchist society. And here, equality is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. But do we know what we mean when we use the word today? There is a case to be made that we do not, and so expose ourselves to a danger of sorts.


To begin, some logical points about the word ‘equality’ must be made. When we say that X is ‘equal’, it is not the same as saying that X is ‘large’, or ‘green’, or ‘foul-smelling’. There has to be something else – some attribute – that X must be equal in, in relation to Y. To use the official term, ‘equal’ is an incomplete predicate, because it requires another concept to attach to before it takes on any meaning. ‘Cyril Ramaphosa is rich’ is a complete thought; ‘Cyril Ramaphosa is equal’ is an incomplete thought. Equal in what? And to what?

This may seem like a trifling point. However, news of still more turbulence in Nelson Mandela Bay in the last couple of weeks demonstrates why this sort of (mis)application of an idea can lead to trouble. The Sowetan reported last week that budget allocation under the new UDM-led coalition will strictly prioritise townships and the northern areas, and that any service delivery complaints from the affluent areas are to be ignored. The new Mayor Mongameli Bobani, who came into power following the ousting of the DA’s Athol Trollip in a motion of no confidence, “made no bones … about the fact that it was time residents in more affluent areas also experienced blocked drains and sewage spills”.

Well, that’s a step towards equality, isn’t it? Everyone gets to share equally in the frustration and indignity that comes with failures of basic service delivery. To achieve equality in this case, we will level down those at the top, and achieve an egalitarian ideal. Of course, when most people think of striving for equality, they mean a levelling up, rather than a levelling down, and they mean it in some positive sense. Being equally poor, equally sick or equally wretched is not a fine thing to be – ‘equal’ in these uses is exposed as the substance-less notion it is.

That is not to say that Bobani is off the mark in trying to address historical neglect by channelling financial resources into poor communities. South Africa is (rightfully) committed to its welfare statehood, and there is a monstrously long way to go yet, given that we experience some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world. Where Bobani goes profoundly wrong is forgetting that equality as it is just by itself – equality nje, as it were – is not what we value. The positive attribute in question (in this case good service delivery) is what we want everyone to have.

Because the word tends to have the odd effect of both carrying and not carrying meaning, seemingly nonsensical phrases such as George Orwell’s ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’ actually make a strange sort of sense. There is something similarly cynical and dystopian in Orwell’s description of socialism as a corrupt charade, and Bobani’s suggestion that rich people in Nelson Mandela Bay are due a blocked drain or two. This tells us that words can be dangerous, especially those that carry a great deal of significance but limited specificity. ‘Equality’, ‘transparency’ and ‘privacy’ come to mind as easy to manipulate in support of virtually any agenda.

What is so great about equality? It cannot be a levelling down so that we all suffer equally – that would be tantamount to Bobani advocating a retributive approach to justice, which is counter to the ideals upon which our democracy is founded. It also cannot be that we are all owed equal treatment – if it were, we would not place any value on extra care for those with special needs, or making niche opportunities available to highly talented individuals to develop those talents. Equality becomes the aspirational idea that we all unthinkingly use it as when it is attached to a respect for our common humanity. For this is surely the only true attribute that we share: our humanity. This is the sense in which equality is used in our Bill of Rights, guaranteeing all citizens the equal protection and benefit of the law. That’s what’s great about equality.

All residents of Nelson Mandela Bay are owed an acknowledgement of their humanity, and public servants must work to enable them to live lives of dignity with, yes, flushing toilets and running water. Priority focus must be placed on those areas that have the most ground to gain before reaching this level – because they are entitled to it, not because others are not. If we are to take this country forward, the responsibility falls on citizens to scrutinise the discourse of our public officials, and debate with greater semantic clarity the most pressing issues facing us.

Grace Cricle 3


Grace Garland is an Associate at The Ethics Institute. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.