Sachs Sees Principle of Ubuntu as Focus of Sustainability and Poverty

  • Albie Sachs, 2014 Tang Prize laureate in Rule of Law
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The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) held its annual meeting this November 18, 2015, in Vienna, Austria. The meeting, which opened with speeches from academy presidents Bai Chunli and the Federal President of Austria Heinz Fischer, was attended by over 300 academicians representing 60 countries. Albie Sachs, the inaugural Tang Prize Laureate in Rule of Law, was invited by the academy to deliver the keynote speech on sustainable development and poverty.

Sachs’ speech was an uncommon departure from the usually scientific discussion, though it touched on an important and often unlooked aspect of the field. His speech, entitled “The Grootboom dilemma–sustainable development and overcoming poverty” evoked three separate cases to show how sustainable development is intimately tied with poverty. Sachs wove elements from each case in his call to give more attention to those people with the least means. But the through-line connecting them all was the African humanist concept of Ubuntu.

The eponymous “Grootboom case” recalls Irene Grootboom of South Africa, who along with 390 adults and 510 children had been evicted from her impromptu home that happened to sit on private land, though the government that ordered the eviction did not provide any alternative. Believing that such treatment ignored her constitutionally-protected rights for minimal needs like housing, she brought the case to court, and when it failed in the lower courts her lawyer appealed to the Constitutional Court of South Africa in 2000 during Sachs’ tenure. The court found the housing program provided by the government to be wholly inadequate. Her case was a success, and has since been used as a precedent for defending socio-economic rights in similar cases.

While sustainable development discussions often center on economic and resource development, it often fails to bring the average global citizen, like Irene Grootboom, into consideration. Policies that elevate the higher strata of society may not even be enough to keep poorer ethnic groups afloat. Sachs touched on this very point in his speech when he said that sustainable development cannot be solely be about the environment and GDP, but must look after the people who have the least means to live sustainably and with a decent quality of life.

Two other landmark cases written on by Sachs during his tenure on the bench dealt with HIV discrimination and medicine access. In the former, Jacques Hoffmann, a prospective employee of South African Airways had been denied employment after he was found to be HIV-positive. Hoffmann believed the actions to be unconstitutional on the grounds that they unfairly discriminated against him. The second case dealt with access to life-saving anti-retroviral medicines used in the treatment of HIV. The South African government had previously disallowed most hospitals in the country from administering the drug, even though it had been proven to be effective in preventing transmission of the deadly virus from mother to child. As it was in the Grootboom case, Sachs stressed that the court decisions were based on the African principle of Ubuntu, which says that “I am a person because you are a person.” Sachs says the principle has been very important to many of the court’s decisions, as it brings people together rather than making distinctions, as it asks for accommodation rather than leveraged negotiation.

Like all complex topics, sustainability is itself a hybridity of multiple fields, perspectives, and peoples. Which means that internally, it both suffers and benefits from tensions and seeming contradictions. Among these, Sachs brought to light what he thought were the five most important:

1.The power of the judiciary versus the power of the executive government;

2.Scientific knowledge versus traditional wisdom;

3.Globalization versus universalization;

4.Science as a business versus science as a portal of discovery and wonder;

5.The ever-present question of race.

On the last point, Sachs asked the audience, “Do you have to be white to be green?” The concerns of richer white citizens cannot overtake the basic needs of the poor, like housing, employment, and access to medicine. But, he said, sustainable lifestyles concern us all. “You don’t have to be white to be green, not black, not brown, not yellow…but human.”

As the final words of Sachs’ speech echoed though the academy’s marble halls, Sachs left the scientists with an optimistic thought. Being in the room with these curious-minded scientists, he said, made him “feel reaffirmed by the spirit felt from all in the room.”