The Malta Independent 20 May 2024, Monday
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Jean Paul Sofia galvanised a nation

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 20 July 2023, 12:02 Last update: about 11 months ago

Jean Paul Sofia galvanised a nation. How misguided it is to speak of Malta as some sub-democratic state made up of mindless and docile masses! Quite the contrary. The campaign spearheaded by Jean Paul’s mother, Isabelle Bonnici, reached its aim: the holding of a public inquiry to investigate his tragic death in a construction site.

There are many ways in which this issue can be interpreted, some being more objective and factual than others, whilst others focusing more on speculation and one’s allegiances or biases. Again, this is part of the democratic field.


In this short article I wish to give a sociological interpretation of the campaign for justice for Sofia, culminating in last Monday’s vigil. My interpretation is informed by the sociology of social movements, particularly that of Charles Tilly: One of his most influential concepts is known as ‘WUNC’, which stands for worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. This helps us understand the effectiveness or otherwise of social movement campaigns. One can read about this in his ‘Contentious Performances’ and ‘Social Movements 1768-2018’ (co-authored), and in concise form in the highly recommendable ‘What is a Social Movement?’, by Hank Johnston.

Tilly wrote about how small acts of contention can lead to protest campaigns, and possibly, into social movements. The latter may comprise campaigns, protest events, as well as various strategic and organisational possibilities to reach their goals. The WUNC concept becomes very handy when analysing protest displays.

Tilly writes about worthiness of the cause and its proponents – for example through collective action and support by respected personalities; Unity of participants and purpose – such as displays of collective identity; Numbers – for example through the expression of public support in protest events; and Commitment, for example through dedication to the cause. In all four instances, the campaign for Jean Paul Sofia performed impressively.

The initial call for justice after Sofia’s death last December kept growing, being supported by the media, various NGOs, personalities, and politicians. Some were there from the beginning – for example Isabelle Bonnici singled out parliamentarian Jerome Caruana Cilia in this regard. Others joined later in the day, and surely, the most significant – apart from the 25,000 strong petition last weekend - were former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s support for a public inquiry just a few hours before last Monday’s vigil. The call for a public inquiry became so legitimate, that even Prime Minister Robert Abela and his parliamentary group endorsed it, an hour or so before the vigil - just a few days after voting against it in Parliament, when the Opposition proposed it.

Thus, what was initially a divisive and contentious issue, became a cause for national consensus, and as Jean Paul’s family put it during the vigil, ‘a celebration’, the only colour of which is ‘love’. Surely the campaign travelled on a hard road, and everyone is wiser after an event. The main bone of contention was related to the effectiveness of magisterial and public inquiries. For months, Abela insisted that only a magisterial inquiry can bring true justice, but Jean Paul’s family insisted that a public inquiry can investigate the fulfilment of responsibilities of the construction industry and the state. As the date of the vigil approached, Abela’s position looked increasingly untenable, and the proverbial waters were being tested: for example, when Deborah Schembri (former Labour Cabinet member and leading figure of the divorce referendum campaign) said that one inquiry does not exclude the other. Hers (and others’, such as Jason Micallef’s and the GWU’s) served as effective opening acts for Joseph Muscat’s intervention. Paradoxically, the former Prime Minister sealed the issue into national consensus. 

Along the way, during the vigil, and even after, there were various acts that reeked of affiliations and ulterior agendas, but unity prevailed.  Beyond all the noise and narratives, this is what matters. Peppi Azzopardi’s reconciliatory speech during the vigil, where he thanked both Labour and the Nationalist Parties for their respective roles, summed it up well. The boos and claps when he mentioned Robert Abela and Bernard Grech respectively were very revealing. Indeed, from my own observations in the huge crowd, many present for the vigil were people you see at events of the Nationalist Party and its allies, but there were also quite a lot of activists and other people who are as far away from the PN as it gets. Hence, the numbers were there.

None of the above would have happened were it not for the commitment of Jean Paul’s mother, Isabelle, the rest of the family, and their snowballing social networks. Sofia’s family did not back down, they did not snob anyone, and they made it a point to state that the issue should not be infested with division. Maltese society, with all its differences and nuances, can only thank Isabelle and company for their persistence. Hopefully, a social movement is in place, and as Isabelle herself put it during the vigil, this will lead to less - and possibly zero - deaths from the construction industry.

Dr Michael Briguglio is a Sociologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta


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