When is discrimination unfair? A relational reconstruction of the Constitutional Court’s dignity-based approach

Author: Denise Meyerson

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Emeritus Professor of Law, Macquarie University
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 141 Issue 2, p. 257-292


In this article, I examine the dignity-based test for unfair discrimination developed by the Constitutional Court of South Africa. First, I argue that the point of antidiscrimination rights is to protect equality. They seek to prevent a comparative wrong — wrongful disparities in treatment. Violating dignity appears, however, to be a non-comparative wrong — one that is independent of the treatment extended to others. Tying unfair discrimination to dignity violations therefore seems to miss the comparative concerns that underlie anti-discrimination rights. Adding that everyone is ‘equally’ entitled to be treated with dignity does not solve the problem. I respond to this apparent difficulty with the court’s approach by suggesting that the court is best understood as concerned with a distinctive kind of dignity — status dignity. I also argue that there is an attractive conception of equality — relational equality — that explains why violations of status dignity are violations of equality. This interpretation provides the requisite egalitarian foundation for the court’s approach. Secondly, I address the criticism that a dignity-based understanding of substantive equality is too limited to address systemic inequalities. I suggest that an understanding based in status dignity is suitably robust and requires far-reaching reforms and restructuring of social practices.