Henry J. Lewis | Wanted: agents for justice!
Recently, I was on an almost 17-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Atlanta en route to Jamaica. I decided to pass the time reading No Longer Whispering to Power, a book I had bought just a day earlier, authored by veteran South African journalist Thandeka Gqubule, a social activist and an 'agent for justice' in her right.
The book chronicles the life and tenure of Thuli Madonsela as public protector, the equivalent to Jamaica's public defender. It is the story of South Africans' attempting to hold power to account through the Office of the Public Protector. More significantly, the book stands as a record of the crucial work Madonsela has done as an 'agent of justice', always acting without fear or favour.
She achieved in seven years as public protector what few accomplished in a lifetime. In her final days in office, she compiled the explosive State of Capture report and, two years earlier, 'Secure in Comfort', which chronicled the unduly benefiting of upgrades made to President Jacob Zuma's private Nkandla residence by about 246 million rand.
The work of Thuli reminds us that "there is a quiet way to fight battles and win the war. A way not to lower your standards and keep taking the high road. A way not to score cheap standards and dirty points or exploit people's fears. A way to not kick your opponent in the gut when he's lying on the floor. A way to use intellect and say what is right instead of what is convenient." These words were echoed by journalist Alex Eliseev commenting on the words and work of Madonelsa.
Too often our approach to fighting for justice in this country is tribalistic, political and selfish; we kick people in the gut while they lay on the ground in the name of fighting for justice many times, the motive is to score cheap political points and self-promotion. We must teach our young attorneys, student leaders, and activists how to fight for justice without descending into the abyss of indignity and self-righteousness. They should learn from the likes of Thuli Madonsela who confronted the social and economic injustices in President Jacob Zuma's ruling African National Congress (ANC) government with dignity and decorum, producing damning reports like 'Pipes to Nowhere' in 2013.
She reported that over 200 million rand of taxpayers' money was spent on a project intended for the installation of a sanitation system but failed because of the alleged maladministration by the Nala local municipality. Millions more were spent on a dysfunctional bucket system. The pipes were not connected to the main system and the entire piping systems were defected, including inferior piping that was inadequate to support the sewerage.
The sad ending to this account was the death of six-year-old Michael Komape, who went to the toilet at his school one Monday morning on his break between classes. The toilet that he thought was his regular toilet was a deep pit latrine filled with faeces. He responded to the 'call of nature' but never returned to class. It is believed that the toilet seat collapsed, sending him several feet into a pit filled with faeces. He never made it out alive.
Sad, you might be saying, but what is even more painful is the fact that the 200 million rand could have saved Michael's life if it was used efficiently, providing the opportunity for him to have a flush toilet.
Sound like Jamaica, right? How many instances of alleged maladministration and corruption take place every day in this country with little accountability? Who will be held responsible for the Ministry of National Security's undelivered fleet of pre-owned motor vehicles for the Jamaica Constabulary after the signing of a $426.9-million contract with a local contractor? Where are the agents of justice to protect taxpayers when millions are spent on road maintenance that soon goes into disrepair after a few days of heavy rainfall only for millions moreto be disbursed for patching .
We Need New Lenses
"We need new lenses to see the world that we live in. Most of the times we complain, but nothing changes when we just complain; there is an alternative to complaining. Some of our forefathers did more than complain. They analysed their world then and came up with ideas of how it can be changed. Sitting around and saying we live in a troubled world will not change anything. Somebody has got to stand up and say no."
Those were the gentle but profound words of Madonsela as she gave her opening remarks at the final evening of the Well-Being Economy Festival held at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Pretoria, South Africa.
In Jamaica, we must say no to human trafficking. No to physical, sexual and emotional abuse of our children. No to gender-based violence that has affected so many of our women. No to maladministration and corruption, whether the government of the day is green, orange, or blue. No to 'garrisonism'.
New Generation of Agents
Where are the agents for justice among academia, civil society, and the Church? Jamaica needs a generation of agents for justice of all ages, genders, socio-economic statuses and professions. We need young, bright and socially aware attorneys.
In 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke these words at the University of Cape Town, South Africa: "It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve a lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope ... ; those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance."
I sat in the Delta 201 aircraft seat 47H with hope as my companion, scribbling my thoughts for this article on two layers of napkins, filled with a sense of deep passion and responsibility. I resolved to be an agent for justice with my pen and my voice.
My hope and prayer is that agents of justice will begin to pop up all across Jamaica, holding those in power to account, because unchecked power is a danger to everything and everyone. There is beauty in truth, and power in knowing it, especially when it is difficult for us to process, accept and adapt accordingly. Who else will join the fight? Let's do it for Jamaica!
- Henry Lewis Jr is a PhD candidate at the UWI, Mona School of Business and Management adjunct lecturer, and a full-time lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UTech. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.