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John W. Holmes Memorial Lecture: Social Justice Transcending Inequalities

Below is an extract from the John W. Holmes Memorial Lecture presented by Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela at the ACUNS Annual Conference, Stellenbosch University, 20 June 2019.

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Around the same time as John W. Holmes ended his career as a diplomat in the 1960s, which was in the middle of the ColdWar, James Patrick Kinney penned a timeless poem titled “The Cold Within.”

Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.

Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.

The next man looking ’cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

The people in the poem, who are just like us today, let a fire die despite having the means to stoke it. They each had a log they could have used to keep the fire alive. However, each person looked around and saw someone who they thought did not deserve to benefit from their log and, accordingly, withheld it. In the end, they all died as a result of a difficulty they could have overcome.

Are there lessons we can learn from the poem about social justice and transcending inequality? I hope you will agree with me that the most pressing imperatives of our time are social justice and climate change. Most reasonable people agree on the latter, while the former has more denialists. Can we transcend inequality through promoting social justice?

“What is in it for us?” the sixth man would ask. But it would appear to me that, according to a person such as John W. Holmes, the question we should ask should not be about how we could benefit personally, but rather about how we could preserve humanity, and how we could preserve our own lives through helping and preserving the lives of others. This is what Ubuntu is all about.

Read the rest of the paper →

Cite the paper: Madonsela T, “Social Justice Transcending Inequalities” (2020) 26 Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 1-20. Available here:

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By Chair in Social Justice team
Published 17 June 2020

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About the Chair:

Professor Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, is the law trust chair in social justice and a law professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she conducts and coordinates social justice research and teaches constitutional and administrative law.

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