• “I Don’t Want to Live in a World Where People Die Every Day Simply Because They Are Poor”: From the Treatment Action Campaign to Equal Education, from Stories of Human Rights to the Poetics of Inequality

This essay explores the rhetorical and genre differences between human rights arguments and inequality arguments, speculating that the former privileges narrative as a dominant mode of representation and that the latter frequently require a poetics—paradoxically the poetics of numbers. Two South African NGOs—the Treatment Action Campaign, whose rationale deployed a health and human rights framework, and Equal Education, an organization deeply invested in arguments about inequalities in education and opportunity—are presented as examples of the defining contrast between the ways that human rights and inequality arguments broach the question of justice.


Human rights, inequality, Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education, Eduardo Galeano, poetics, narrative

In this essay, I will walk us briefly through the shared history of two important current South African NGOs, the “Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)” and “Equal Education,” suggesting some of the ways in which they produce a version of politics within a liberal democratic imaginary that straddles human rights and economic equality/inequality arguments and associated practices.1 My empirically impossible hunch is that, in an era of compounding interregnums of varying intensities and durations, the problem of justice in a range of global and national political imaginaries is caught between a human rights hegemony and one that embraces questions of global and national economic inequality as its organizing frame. Both “human rights” and “inequality” framings of the problem of justice seem to require differing sets of representational strategies in both senses of the word “representation”—portrait and proxy. In essence, inequality arguments may require more of a poetics; human rights ones need narratives. As inequality arguments become more prevalent in the theorizing of global justice, developing a poetics adequate for responding to global economic inequality is a key challenge/task for the present.

Methodologically, the argumentative practices, rhetorics, and strategies of these two NGOs could be considered case studies of the differences between human rights and inequality arguments, even as I work to distill these differences out of the materials produced by these differing but linked organizations.

The Differing “Discursive Realms” of Equality and Rights

While much of what follows will move inductively from an analysis of the “Treatment Action Campaign” and “Equal Education,” it might be useful to shorthand what I mean by human rights and inequality arguments, definitionally and historically. Both, let me call them “discursive realms,” are most centrally concerned with the problem of justice, albeit differently configured in each.

Here is a short list of what, to me, are the most salient differences between human rights and inequality framings of the problem of justice:

  1. 1. The antagonists of “inequality” are the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, winners and losers. The protagonists of a human rights drama are victims, perpetrators, and witnesses/bystanders. [End Page 479]

  2. 2. Inequality arguments present their terms as relational and contextual. Human rights declare themselves to be self-evident, universal, indivisible.

  3. 3. Inequality arguments privilege collectivities over individuals. Human rights arguments broach group identities through individualist metaphors—for example, the right to self-determination.

  4. 4. Inequality arguments are explicitly political. Human rights arguments often eschew politics by claiming a certain transcendence for human rights and do politics by stealth.

  5. 5. Human rights arguments seem to argue for a floor, but not necessarily a ceiling. For inequality arguments, the relation between floor and ceiling is the central dynamic.

  6. 6. Lastly, human rights arguments rely more on narrative forms whereas inequality arguments require something resembling a poetics. This claim is the primary focus of my essay and will be further elaborated during the case studies section.

In thinking about the differences between human rights and economic inequality arguments with regard to the question of justice, Nancy Fraser’s distinction between distributive notions of justice and those based on modes of recognition is obviously germane here; yet this distinction needs to be thought of more in terms of a varying preponderance than a sharp line.2 There are clearly inequality arguments within the recognition realm of human rights, especially with regard to “second-generation” human rights—economic and social rights. Further, the uneven distribution of rights is central to most human rights thinking on the problem of justice.3 Relatedly, inequality arguments do not entirely dispense with the problem of rights based on a notion of recognition. Despite these overlays and areas of intersection between the two discursive realms, we can nevertheless deduce important differences in their respective modes of argumentation and related representational strategies.

Shifting Justice Horizons: From Rights to Equality?

According to a range of current leading human rights scholars, for better and/or worse, we live in an era of human rights. Here is Joseph Slaughter: “The triumphalist version proclaims that human rights law and discourse have at last achieved some form of worldwide normativeness and that we are now living in the Age of Human Rights.”4 Elaborating on the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Slaughter goes on to argue: “Human Rights’ enabling fiction expresses certain laudable aspirations in its projection of an ‘egalitarian imaginary,’ but the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty, equality, fraternity obscures the character of its implementation in ‘practices and discourses bearing new forms of inequality’ as it becomes the hegemonic ‘common sense’ of ‘liberal democratic ideology.’ ”5 Samuel Moyn in his eponymously titled book argues for human rights as “the last utopia,” as the current horizon for the imagining and uneven implementation of a better world.6

In these fast-moving times, it is tricky to describe a shift in our unevenly shared present from a hegemonic framing of the problem of justice as human rights and/or as a human rights abuse problem to an inequality problem. The historiographic stakes are huge and contested here. We are at the end of history claims, with its telos of capitalism and democracy holding hands as they stroll into a perpetual sunset clearly undone. Since the [End Page 480] neoliberal consensus has solved neither economics nor politics and in an era of rolling fundamentalisms, including what Mitch Lasser has called a human rights fundamentalism, violently competitive ethnonationalisms and environmental devastation (to name a few), just and democratic imaginaries can, as Wendy Brown acutely argues, begin to feel nostalgic.7

The temporality of this shift is complicated, as in certain ways it marks a shift back to some elements of what Moyn refers to as older global utopias like international socialism, which took economic inequality as its central justice problem. Raymond Williams’s nuanced descriptive terminology for historical transition is persistently useful on this terrain. To riff on his “structures of feeling” as a way of describing the inchoateness of living through historical change, “inequality arguments” may have been vestigial in an era of human rights but are somewhat more than “emergent” now.

I suspect that within this cauldron of the present, there is strong resonance, if not quite a consensus, that inequality is the greatest current threat to justice, regardless of how that latter term is conceptualized by different figures, and constituencies. When constituencies as diverging as The Economist—a kind of practitioner’s bible for the neoliberal consensus—and Pope Francis agree that rising inequality is a pressing global problem, we need to pay attention.

The Economist’s 2012 Inequality Report notes inter alia that: “The widening gaps within many countries are beginning to worry even the plutocrats. A survey for the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos pointed to inequality as the most pressing problem of the coming decade (alongside fiscal imbalances). In all sections of society, there is growing agreement that the world is becoming more unequal, and that today’s disparities and their likely trajectory are dangerous.”8

Pope Francis in Ecuador in 2015 makes these widely circulated remarks about inequality in a moral register: “The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times, it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” Later, he continues, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”9

Reading the pope as a powerful and popular critic of inequality here, I note the prevalence of references to inequality in his critique. There is a submerged human rights argument in here around the right to food, the right to work, and a careful moral universalism that resonates with human rights in a temporally double-edged way. Let us remember that catholic also means “broad, universal.” However, the framing is contextual and antagonistic, and there is a kind of poetics in the argument. The pope also asserted: “An unfettered pursuit of money rules. That is the dung of the devil.” Both rich and poor are depersonalized and metaphorized: the rich as anonymous mammon; the poor as having their belts tightened. “The dung of the devil” is an easy metaphor to parse. The depiction of “mere philanthropy”—the ostensibly benign giving of the rich to the poor, which actually removes much policy accountability in a fundamentally undemocratic fashion, contrasts with the language of moral obligation sliding into commandment. A just distribution is the goal. Is an older but resurgent religious vocabulary more willing to [End Page 481] broach inequality questions than a secularized and, here, more submerged, human rights one?

From the “Treatment Action Campaign” to “Equal Education”

Let me now turn from these huge historical and philosophical questions to a specific moment in South African NGO history, which can demonstrate these temporally wavering shifts more at the scale of the national, the local, almost down to the level of a career.

In 2008, charismatic South African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat stepped down from his leadership position at the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the most significant HIV/AIDS NGO in South Africa to found a new activist NGO called “Equal Education.” Here, I aspire to track the strategies, tactics, and political rationality, if you like, of this more inequality-based educational activism. What political lessons learned in the human rights-based fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa could be applied to issues of education, at the level of ideology and policy? And, more broadly, how have some civil society organizations mobilized rhetorics and arguments about inequality in a global era of neoliberalism and in its South African version of what has been termed internally-led structural adjustment.10

TAC is a human rights organization, organized around the idea of the right to health as a human right. The right to health (an erstwhile socialist and communist right) is usually seen as a second-generation right in the development of human rights discourse in the non- or postsocialist world, and thus as one that brings questions of distributive inequality into play. It is most frequently in the debates concerning these second-generation human rights that one sees the overlap between human rights and economic inequality approaches the question of justice. That TAC was famously founded on International Human Rights Day in 1998 indicates a deployment of the affective power of an idea of human rights in the national fight against HIV/AIDS.11 Many of the strategies and tactics used by TAC under Achmat’s leadership and beyond are recognizably human rights strategies. Importantly, TAC had a policy of never accepting money from either the pharmaceutical companies who made the life-saving drugs or the South African government, a practice not dissimilar to that of major international “independent” human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.12 TAC also practiced the human rights tactic of naming and shaming public officials whose actions seriously compromised the lives and health of HIV-positive South Africans during the HIV-denialist years of the Mbeki presidency.13 Second, TAC was at the forefront of a human rights move to make strategic use of national courts to implement key human rights—particularly the right of access to health care in the South African constitution of 1996 and subsequent legislation in key cases. The implementative agency of nation states is/was key to the emergence and consolidation of international human rights regimes.14 TAC’s legal successes include The Minister of Health v the Treatment Action Campaign case of 2002, where the constitutional court ruled that it was unreasonable for the department of health to restrict the supply of the anti-retroviral drug Nevirapine to only two sites in each of the provinces for a two-year trial period.15 The court deployed a rights rationale: “And besides the pandemic, the state faces huge demands in relation to access to education, land, housing, health care, food, water, and social security. These are the socio-economic rights entrenched in the [End Page 482] Constitution, and the state is obliged to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources to achieve the progressive realization of each of them.”16

In an article that uses the TAC’s practice of what he calls “ESR advocacy,” William E. Forbath, with assistance from Zackie Achmat, Geoff Budlender, and Mark Heywood, writes:

Social rights are the stepchildren of the rights family. Many thoughtful advocates and scholars believe that precious little can be gained by bringing them to court . . . Winning judicial vindication brings little change in actual social provision and tends to legitimate ongoing deprivations. We don’t belittle these arguments and experiences, but we think there are often ways to use litigation to help bring about substantial change by putting litigation into the service of political and social movement strategies outside the courts.17

Litigation, a favored human rights strategy, was thus not seen as an end in itself. In addition to naming and shaming and constitutional legal challenges, TAC engaged in effective publicity campaigns. Achmat refused to take anti-retrovirals until they were made available through the state’s healthcare system. In October 2000, Achmat very publicly broke the law by smuggling anti-retroviral drugs into the country.18

There were however, important and strategic limits to TAC’s deployment of universalist human rights rhetorics and tactics. As Forbath points out, TAC worked to engage the state rather than supersede it by only appealing to supranational human rights. TAC was careful in the first ten years of its existence to proclaim its allegiance to the ruling African National Congress Party, even as it took the government to court and publicly and repeatedly called for the firing of the then–health minister, Manto Msimang Tshabalala. While I am justifiably nervous about using the term “dissident” in the context of the fight against HIV/AIDS, I think Achmat, as a leader of the TAC, could accurately be described as what literary critic Alan Sinfield, in a radically different context, termed a “dissident insider” in terms of political allegiance to the broader goals of a nationalist liberation struggle.19 Through his extraordinary activist career, Achmat has remained a loyal internal critic of the African National Congress (ANC), even as its policies failed HIV-positive people and Achmat’s own very public and polemical queerness placed him often at odds with a politics of sexual respectability that infused the wider national liberation struggle and continued when the ANC came to power. Achmat’s uncompromising and moving 1995 essay “My Childhood as an Adult Molester: A Salt River Moffie” performs the reversal of a series of stigmas around inter-generational sex, gay sex, and public sex in powerfully transformative fashion, alongside a queer reclamation of the generally homophobic designation “moffie.”20

Many of the performance strategies and symbols of TAC’s activism also drew on the performative forms and symbols of the ANC-led national liberation struggle against apartheid, from toy-toying to the selective embrace of extra-legal tactics—smuggling rather than armed struggle in this instance. This dissident insiderness sometimes effectively reworked anti-apartheid iconography against the newish ANC government, most notoriously by appending the phrase “Who is killing South Africans now?” to the most famous photograph of the struggle years—Sam Nzima’s image of Hector Pieterson (one [End Page 483] of the first students shot by police in the Soweto riots of 1976) being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo (a schoolmate of Pieterson) as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them. TAC also borrowed some of the guerilla theatrics of ACTUP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), most notably responding to the ACTUP slogan “silence equals death” in the nowiconic purple and white tee-shirts emblazoned with the words “HIV positive.” Those tee shirts were worn by protesters, whether HIV positive or not, and donned by sympathetic figures from Annie Lennox to Nelson Mandela in the attempt to combat the shame, stigma, and silence surrounding people living with HIV.

This history of TAC’s achievements is often told as a successful story of a well-orchestrated, multipronged, and innovative human rights strategy. What is clear is that in many ways the primary target of TAC’s activism was the South African government, and its campaigns effectively forced what is now a belated but largely successful state-sponsored anti-retroviral roll-out. South Africa has the world’s largest AIDS treatment program, with over 2.4 million people on antiretroviral therapy as of mid-2014.21 The use of human rights claims and tactics were obviously instrumental in this success. Again, we see how the shift I am attempting to describe is not a sharp line, as human rights were and can be used to address inequality in access to healthcare.

What is less often discussed is the way that TAC’s legal and public arguments were buttressed by a strong sense of the injustice of inequality. In his long career as a political leader, Achmat likes the words “equal” and “equality.” He was a co-founder of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in 1994, an organization that was formed to instrumentalize the new equality clause in the South African provisional constitution of the same year and ended up as a plaintiff in a constitutional court case in 1998 that succeeded in getting the sodomy laws in South Africa declared unconstitutional.22 TAC’s newsletter is called “Equal Treatment.” The dual meaning of treatment is not insignificant here: medical treatment, but also more a more general “behavior toward or conduct toward.” The title of this paper contains a sentence uttered by Achmat in 2001: “I don’t want to live in a world where people die every day simply because they are poor.” By 1994, the year of South Africa’s first democratic elections, anti-retroviral drugs were increasingly available to HIV-positive people in the developed world but were stratospherically expensive for South Africans and others across the Third World.

Economic inequality within and between nations was as much a driver of the pandemic as a failure of the universal right to health care. This problem of access to medicines cut along the great cleavages within South African society, but the court judgment quoted earlier couches its argument more in terms of the progressive realization of rights within the limits of available resources than in relation to the questions of inequality. South African judge Edwin Cameron, in his memoir, Witness to AIDS, makes the injustice of unequal access clear when he writes that he could take the life-saving medicines because he and his friends could afford to pay for them.23

This commitment to fighting economic inequality would manifest in Achmat’s future activism as well, and while Equal Education, the NGO he founded in 2008, continues to deploy a rights framework, the balance between rights and inequality arguments shifts toward the latter. Like the right to health, the right to education has been heralded as a significant second-generation human right. Let us now turn to how “Equal Education” makes its arguments in relation to questions of human rights and inequality: [End Page 484]

On Friday 29 November 2013, something truly positive and historic happened in South Africa. The Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, published legally binding Norms and Standards for School Infrastructure. For the first time ever it is now the law that every school must have water, electricity, internet, working toilets, safe classrooms with a maximum of 40 learners, security, and thereafter libraries, laboratories and sports facilities.

Minimum Norms and Standards are regulations that define the infrastructural conditions that make a school a school. They stipulate the basic level of infrastructure that every school must meet in order to function properly.

These legally-binding standards set a standard for provincial education departments to work towards, and against which to be held accountable, and enable communities to hold government officials accountable. Norms and standards are therefore a mechanism for top-down and bottom-up accountability.

The Norms and Standards regulations apply to all public schools in South Africa. This is of great significance because it means that all learners in South Africa, regardless of race and class, will be able to learn in environments with adequate infrastructure.24

This legislative change appears to arise from political pressure rather than litigation. What is apparent in Equal Education, since its founding in 2008, is that equality remains in the mode of futurity, and instead the organization has been more successful in arguing for minimum norms and standards rather than for equality per se. Such norms and standards are critically important and mark the organization’s allegiance to human rights arguments and strategies particularly in their ESR form, and in “minimum norms and standards,” we find the implicit human rights metaphor of the floor. TAC’s campaign for equal treatment similarly straddled a minimum norms and standards/equality divide. As the phrase “equal treatment” suggests, a commitment to ideas of equality has always been part of Achmat’s praxis as an activist, even within an often explicitly human rights frame, but inequality arguments may increasingly be taking center stage.

It is in concert with a wider and emergent student movement around education, that the full force of inequality arguments is gaining momentum. Here is Equal Education’s statement on the fracas around the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on University of Cape Town’s campus in 2014:

Rhodes’ legacy has been the reduction of black lives to units of cheap labour; this is the deepest root of South Africa’s continuing education crisis. Under-resourced, overcrowded and under-performing schools are expressions of this crisis. University campuses dominated by white academics, neo-liberal curricula and symbols of racial oppression are expressions of this crisis. The connections between poor schooling and untransformed campuses are clear.25

These remarks bear many of the features of an inequality argument. It is historical and contextual, makes no explicit reference to rights, and calls for transformation rather than minimum norms and standards. Equal Education also provided legal aid to protesting #FeesMustFall students who were arrested in 2014. [End Page 485]

Modes of Representation for Different Political Imaginaries

If we are living through a palimpsestic interregnum between human rights and inequality imaginaries of justice and their overlaps, it may become important to ask about the different forms, genres, and modes of representation that attend to human rights and inequality imaginaries, respectively. In this section, I contrast what could be called “the poetics of inequality” to the narrative and testimonial forms of human rights representation (representation in the literary rather than legal or political sense here). First off, what are the representational forms and genres associated with human rights? I think it is plausible to recognize, as Barbara Harlow and Joseph Slaughter and others have, that the political rationality of human rights has certainly favored narrative forms, the bildungsroman, for example. It is perhaps not obvious how a novel that takes as its central question the formative years of its main character—in particular, his or her psychological development and moral education—connects conceptually and historically with human rights.

In 1992, Barbara Harlow argued that the “thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . . . translated the standard literary paradigm of individual versus society and the narrative practices of emplotment and closure, by mapping an identification of the individual within a specifically international construction of rights and responsibilities. The Declaration, that is, can be read as recharting, for example, the trajectories and peripeties of the classic bildungsroman.”26 Building on Harlow, Joseph Slaughter writes:

The Bildungsroman is not the only cultural form that cooperates with human rights, nor is it the only form through which human rights may be imagined or the literary image of the human rights person may be projected. Other cultural forms certainly interact with, and likely make imaginable alternative visions of, human rights, but the Bildungsroman is exemplary in the degree to which its conventions overlap with the image of human personality development articulated by the law.”27

It is hardly coincidental that the Bildungsroman was the preferred aesthetic form of an imperial nineteenth century European bourgeoisie. More concretely, one could argue that human rights reporting and prosecutions rely on many older literary and theatrical forms and conventions. The most obvious ones would be the testimonial, plus a trinity formula of dramatis personae (victim, perpetrator, witness), a preference for the individual as narrative agent, and realism as its mode. These forms and conventions are not obviously adaptable for the making of inequality arguments in a less rights-based imaginary of justice.

In terms of the individual as primary narrative agent, Slaughter is compelling on the human person as the founding abstraction in human rights narratives: “The drafters of the UDHR took it for granted that their subject of central concern was the human person, and that the law should stipulate the fundamental civil, social and political protections and privileges necessary for the ‘free and full development of the human personality.’ ”28 The reliance of human rights arguments on the idea of bearing witness in the form of the testimonial, and the testimonial’s dependence on realism are obvious and well-known.29

I claim that it is difficult to shoehorn inequality arguments into the forms and conventions of individually based narrative realism, because I think inequality arguments call for a poetics. Let us simply work with the most basic definition of poetics here (i.e. [End Page 486] having some of the language features of a poem: metaphor, metonymy, imagery, condensation, ambiguity). For a start, inequality arguments often embrace the paradoxical poetics of numbers: metrics, aggregates, indices. Inequality arguments tend to think of human beings in the aggregate first. An individual can be important, but primarily as a representative of a group. Since inequality is explicitly relational, it often relies on comparative numbers, but averages have no actual reference. While the average US family has 2.4 children, no extant US family has 2.4 children. The poetics of numbers requires a nonreferential, often monstrous imagination; what does .4 of a child look like? Eduardo Galeano is the great writer of inequality who most cogently elaborates this poetics of numbers in an argument against inequality: “Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development?”30 Arjun Appadurai’s long essay Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, while not really broaching the economic at all, is powerfully suggestive on this terrain of the poetics of numbers.31 Currencies are more like poems than testimonies in that they are signifiers constituted by an almost Derridean play of differences. I could go on. Galeano’s poetics here refute realism in the highly ironized disjuncture between the “poor starving soul” and “the Per Capita Income.”

Moreover, while an individual case can be representative of inequality, I don’t think what I am calling inequality arguments and framings have the individual human subject—and its development and thriving—as their basic unit of analysis.

Galeano’s great prose poem “The Nobodies” offers us the poetics of inequality arguments in the form of a poem and is provocatively suggestive of the forms of subjectivity and collectivity that inequality arguments must bring into representation.

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog,and nobodies dreamof escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck willsuddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. Butgood luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow,or ever. Good Luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matterhow hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand istickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, orstart the new year with a change of brooms.The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. Thenobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,dying through life, screwed every which way.Who are not, but could be.Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.Who don’t have culture, but folklore.Who are not human beings, but human resources.Who do not have faces, but arms. [End Page 487] Who do not have names, but numbers.Who do not appear in the history of the world, but inthe police blotter of the local paper.The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.32

While this justifiably famous prose poem about inequality firmly links questions of inequality to states of rightlessness, “nobodies” cannot seem to access the definition of the human that would allow them human rights redress. Nobodies have no rights because they have nothing and vice-versa, and nobodiedness is neither natural nor existential, but historically made through specific processes of development and dispossession, knowledge and value constructions, and local and global forms of subjectivity and sovereignty. The nobodies are embedded in the community of the human, to their perpetual detriment— the modes of recognition extended to them are continually less than: no languages, but dialects, no religions, but superstitions, no culture, but folklore, and so on. No individuated human lives, as implied by the metonym of faces, but instead a reduction to labor capacity in the metonym of arms. No individuated human lives as connoted by the designation of names, instead an abstraction into the aggregate of numbers. The only entry into the historical record afforded the nobodies is through criminality, and their lives are imagined as having less value than “the bullet that kills them.” People die every day simply because they are poor. The nobodies of the poem cannot be subjects of a bildungsroman, because they have been rendered outliers in the definition of the human—human resources, not human beings, arms not faces. We are in something resembling Spivakian subalternity here. The one pole of inequality cannot be caught up in the net(works) of representation in terms of both proxy and portrait largely through the almost total hegemony of methodological individualism.33 We see here how the poetics of inequality need not forget human rights, but shifts the focus onto dispossessed collectivities—the nobodies—rather than an individuated human subject, though that figure haunts as a kind of impossible aspirational longing. Their injury is not an event that can be witnessed and prosecuted, but rather a long, sustained, daily destruction, both material and discursive.

While the human rights of nobodies are repeatedly violated, their violation does not appear as an event, but rather as a condition, an overdetermined set of histories. Their trauma is mundane, quotidian, normal, rather than exceptional. They are victims of long historical processes, not just the victims of a single event. Their suffering and their claims to justice cannot be narrated by a bildungsroman or adjudicated in a human rights tribunal. Instead, this suffering can be rendered more effectively, poetically.

Conclusions: Poetic Hashtags?

Of course, Galeano’s prose poem cannot be the only way of bringing inequality into representation. I promised a poetics at the outset and ended up reading a poem, but I would like to conclude with a few speculations on something that could be called the poetics of the hashtag. I read the hashtag as a new literary and archival form that is analytical, performative, and being mobilized to resist inequality. It performs inequality in that it is obviously located on the powerful side of the digital divide. Let us return to Equal Education’s statement on “Rhodes Must Fall”: “Rhodes’ legacy has been the reduction of [End Page 488] black lives to units of cheap labour; this is the deepest root of South Africa’s continuing education crisis.”

As the NGO moves outside the NGO sphere, so to speak, and participates, both discursively and materially, in a wider social movement that is local (University of Cape Town), national, extends into the British Commonwealth more broadly (empire preceded current national boundaries), a strange form of deterritorialization becomes evident if one thinks of hashtag linkages between current attempts to remove Confederate statues in the United States and Fallism.

In the age of the hashtag, and understanding the hashtag as a remarkable poetics of condensation and association that works across times and spaces in a kind of nowhere/everywhere/somewhere jumble, we have # blacklivesmatter, # Rhodesmustfall, # FeesMustFall, to name a few of the most germane. Falling down the rabbit hole of # rhodesmustfall, one encounters both Francis B. Nyamnjoh’s 2016 book # RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa, an attempt to reread the iconography and biography of Rhodes, making Rhodes a makwerekwere (a disposable and threatening foreigner, usually an African from north of the Limpopo river) of sorts to question the viability of citizenship as a route to justice in contemporary South Africa, and a truly scurrilous Breitbart fantasized letter from Oriel College to the black South African students who sought the removal of the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College in late 2015, which reasserts inequality in racial terms with the thinnest of civilizational alibis.34 Nyamnjoh’s meditation on Rhodes and the current movement coalescing around his image and legacy calls into question the national frame of an NGO like Equal Education which, at least partially, sees the South African state as a site for addressing inequality, when in relation to Africans from elsewhere in Africa, the South African state is an agent of xenophobia and a producer and enforcer of inequality.

In relation to the startling proliferation enabled by the hashtag, realist narrative as the dominant representational form of human rights argumentation, and in terms of its long-established European derived genres, begins to feel positively quaint, but poiesis—the imaginative creation and recreation of the world, and particularly an unequal world, has continued vitality. “All lives matter,” the rejoinder to “Black lives matter” relies for its force on a vulgarized conception of human rights, with the claim of universality designed to mask and refute specific racial inequalities. “All lives matter” can be parsed as an Orwellian “White lives matter more.”

The poetics and politics of the hashtag allows for surprising juxtapositions, new linkages and violent yokings, alternate genealogies and the paradox of serious abbreviation and formidable archival expansion. These uneven yokings of disparate elements give form to the poetic terrain of inequality as it diverges from the unitary, indivisible, universal abstractions of human rights. In a certain way, the hashtag conceptually does nothing new. What it offers is a new and oddly abstract yet material praxis of intertextuality. I am probably making the hashtag work too hard here, but it is this kind of tricky poetics, always at risk of collapsing into free association in the psychoanalytic rather than the political right sense that I think we need further inquiry about the forms, genres, and modes of inequality arguments in old and new political imaginaries. [End Page 489]

Neville Hoad

Neville Hoad is Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality and Globalization (Minnesota 2007) and co-editor (with Karen Martin and Graeme Reid) of Sex & Politics in South Africa: Equality/Gay & Lesbian Movement/the anti-Apartheid Struggle (Double Storey 2005). He is currently working on a book project about the literary and cultural representations of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to a sequel to African Intimacies entitled Erotopolitics: Africa, Sovereignty, Sexuality.


1. See Treatment Action Campaign website, http://www.tac.org.za (accessed May 31, 2018); and Equal Education website, https://equaleducation.org.za (accessed May 31, 2018).

2. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking Recognition,” New Left Review 3 (May/June 2000): 107–20.

3. For the formative articulation of the “three generation” narration of human rights, see Karel Vasak, “Human Rights: A Thirty-Year Struggle: The Sustained Efforts to give Force of Law to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” UNESCO Courier (November 1977): 29.

4. Joseph Slaughter, “The Legibility of Human Rights,” Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form and International Law (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 1–44.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

7. See Mitchel Lasser, “Fundamentally Flawed: The CJEU’s Jurisprudence on Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law 15, no. 1 (2014): 229–60; Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015).

8. Zanny Minton Beddoes, “For Richer, for Poorer,” Economist, October 13, 2012, http://www.economist.com/node/21564414/ (accessed June 1, 2018).

9. Daniel Burke, “Pope Calls Greed ‘the Devil’s Dung,’” CNN online, July 11, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/07/world/pope-mass-ecuador-quito/ (accessed June 1, 2018).

10. See Hein Marais’s extensive account of how monetary policies of structural adjustment compounded the inequality legacies of colonialism and apartheid in democratic South Africa in South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change (London: Zed Books, 2011).

11. See William E. Forbath with assistance from Zackie Achmat, Geoff Budlender, and Mark Heywood, “Cultural Transformation, Deep Institutional Reform, and ESR Practice: South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign,” in Stones of Hope: How African Activists Reclaim Human Rights to Challenge Global Poverty, ed. Lucie White and Jeremy Perelman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 51–90.

12. TAC, “Funding and Finances,” Tac.org.za, http://www.tac.org.za/community/finance (accessed June 13, 2018).

13. Emilie Marie Hafner-Burton, “Sticks and Stones: Naming and Shaming the Human Rights Enforcement Problem,” International Organization 62, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 689–716. For discussions of former President Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, see Jean Comaroff, “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: AIDS, (Bio)Politics, and the Neoliberal Order,” Public Culture 19, no. 1 (2007): 197–219; Mark Gevisser, A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Neville Hoad, “Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS Blues: The Intellectual, the Archive and the Pandemic,” Public Culture 17, no. 1, (2005): 101–27.

14. Moyn, Last Utopia, 39.

15. Minister of Health v. Treatment Action Campaign, 2002 Constitutional Court of South Africa, 5 SA 721, July 5, 2002.

16. See Albie Sachs, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 199 (emphasis added).

17. Forbath, “Cultural Transformations,” 55.

18. Nick Mathiason, “South Africa Fights Aids Drug Apartheid,” The Guardian, January 13, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2001/jan/14/aids.theobserver1 (accessed June 1, 2018).

19. Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

20. Zackie Achmat, “My Childhood as an Adult Molester: A Salt River Moffie,” in Defiant Desire: Gay & Lesbian Lives in South Africa, ed. Edwin Cameron and Mark Gevisser (New York: Routledge, 1995), 325–41.

21. See Treatment Action Campaign website, http://www.tac.org.za/about_us (accessed June 1, 2018).

22. The nondiscrimination clause in the South African constitution is known as “the equality clause.” This nondiscrimination clause looks very much like a piece of human rights argumentation, though generally legal liberalism tends to back into equality problems through an idea of “equal protection.”

23. Edwin Cameron, Witness to AIDS (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005).

24. See Equal Education website, https://equaleducation.org.za/campaigns/school-infrastructure/ (accessed June 1, 2018).

25. “Equal Education Supports the Struggle of Black Students, Workers and Academics at UCT and Rhodes University, and we Echo Their Slogan—‘Rhodes Must Fall!’ ” Equal Education online. Last modified March 26, 2015. https://equaleducation.org.za/2015/03/26/equal-education-supports-the-struggle-of-black-students-workers-and-academics-at-uct-and-rhodes-university-and-we-echo-their-slogan-rhodes-must-fall/ (accessed June 1, 2018).

26. Barbara Harlow, Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1992), 252–53.

27. Slaughter, Human Rights Inc., 4.

28. Ibid, 17.

29. See, inter alia, Anne Cubilié, Women Witnessing Terror: Testimony and the Cultural Politics of Human Rights (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); The Transformation of Human Rights Fact-finding, ed. Philip Alston and Sarah Knuckey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

30. Eduardo Galeano, “Those Little Numbers and People,” The Book of Embraces, trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Norton, 1992), 81.

31. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

32. Eduardo Galeano, “The Nobodies,” The Book of Embraces, trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Norton, 1992), 73.

33. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Carey Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–31.

34. Francis B. Nyamnjoh, # RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa (Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing, 2016).

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