Charity or justice?

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.” Nelson Mandela 

by Sophie Plagerson[1]
In 2005, President Mandela spoke these words to a crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square, London, campaigning for the end of poverty. As I was recently reminded of the quote, I mentally replaced the words ‘overcoming poverty’ with ‘social protection’. Is social protection automatically an act of justice? How is it distinct from charity?Charity is voluntary. The difference alluded to by Nelson Mandela between charity and justice lies in the relationship between the person who gives and the person who receives.
When charity is at play, the giver is more powerful than the recipient. They decide if the voluntary act of kindness takes place. In an act of justice, giver and receiver sit as equals at the table, bound by their humanity, separated only by their circumstances.When social protection is seen as an act of justice, or as a right, typically the state is called on to guarantee redistribution so that everyone is supplied with a certain level of material means. The state is an entity that represents its citizens, both givers and receivers, in the knowledge that at different times givers may become receivers and vice versa.

[1] Sophie Plagerson is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (University of Johannesburg), South Africa.