What is social justice?

Watch this speech given by Judge Dennis Davis on the importance and role of the social justice sector. The speech was made at a dinner hosted by philanthropist Benny Rabinowitz and convened by SJI Board member Georgina Jaffee in Cape Town in March 2014

Social Justice projects encourage systemic change for a better and more equal society, through on-going public participation and engagement between business, government and civil society.

Areas of work include the promotion of:

  • access to justice
  • good governance
  • accountability and transparency
  • socio-economic rights
  • an active citizenry
  • a strong and effective civil society

Social justice organisations work with and hold government to account and strive for the transformation still needed in South Africa. These organisations build on previous achievements and although gains are often incremental in nature, landmark policy changes often have an impact on millions of people.

Why is it important?

Two decades into our hard-won democracy, much has been achieved. The South African government allocates a high percentage of our GDP to health, education, housing and welfare.

Yet, the poverty and inequality gap is wider than ever, and our democracy is under threat from:

  • widespread corruption
  • poor management and a lack of accountability
  • concerns around the independence of the judiciary
  • poor service delivery
  • increasing popular protests

An engaged and active civil society, spearheaded by social justice organisations, is crucial.

Ultimately social justice projects reduce levels of inequality, improve service delivery and ensure that poor communities are afforded the dignity the Constitution envisions.

History of social justice

The concept of social justice originated in the 19th Century, as a result of the Catholic Church campaigning for a 'living wage' to ensure dignity for all workers.

At that point, social justice was concerned with the relationship between American capitalism and what the church construed as ethical behaviour.

By the 1960s the term took on a broader political tone, becoming associated with civil rights for black people and gender rights for women.

In South Africa, this shift was reflected in the anti-apartheid movement which came to refer not only to the end of racial discrimination, but also to the promotion of rights for women, workers and other vulnerable people.

Today, social justice projects in South Africa concern themselves with economic justice, public participation and socio-economic rights, accountability and improved access to services in a range of different sectors.

Evolution of social justice


Term coined by Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli, who wrote about social problems arising from the Industrial Revolution.


Pope Leo XIII added momentum to the concept by writing in defence of the 'wretched condemnation of the working class'.


Social justice concerned itself with a 'living wage for the dignity and basic humanity of every worker'.


Evolution of political and civil social rights (racism, gender rights, class exploitation).



Advent of democracy in South Africa.


Social Justice Initiative established.