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The unfinished project: creating a virtuous society animated by the values in our Constitution

| June 11, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Sizwe Mabizela

On 27 April 1994, we embarked on an ambitious and yet eminently achievable course of building a new nation; a transformed, non-racial, non-sexist society; a society that is united in its diversity; a prosperous South Africa which upholds human dignity, social justice and human rights.

It was on that memorable day, when we stood patiently in long and winding queues, that the ‘winter of despair’ of colonialism and apartheid gave way to the ‘spring of hope’ of a constitutional democracy.

Nations of the world looked at us with envy as our peaceful transition from an oppressive and pernicious system of apartheid and colonialism to a constitutional order was celebrated and hailed as a ‘miracle’.

Why, you might wonder, am I taking you back to the memorable and momentous events of April 1994?

I do so to make two simple points.

From forgiveness to venality

First, in my view, we have lost our direction, we have lost our way, and, above all, we have lost our moral compass. We have elevated to positions of leadership and responsibility some people of questionable moral and ethical character. People who have no sense of the difference between right and wrong, just and unjust, fair and unfair, ethical and unethical occupy positions of significance, power and influence. The noble qualities and values of personal integrity, honesty, humility, compassion, respect for each other, fairness, forgiveness, empathy, selfless dedication to common good and willingness to put others first, that were so beautifully exemplified by President Nelson Mandela, have given way to venality, a complete lack of integrity, moral decadence, profligacy, rampant corruption, deceit and duplicity.

We have become a society in which obscene and unbridled opulence exists alongside debilitating poverty and deprivation; a society that relentlessly promotes a culture of untrammelled greed and conspicuous consumption above the public and common good; a culture that judges one’s worth by the amount of personal wealth amassed.

My appeal to you is that you become an active, engaged and concerned citizen who takes a special interest in and concern for those who are living in the social and economic margins of our society. We cannot fail them; we dare not fail them! My appeal to you is that you use your knowledge, creativity, skills, energy and expertise to ensure that the society and the world you will bequeath the next generation is better than the one you inherited from our generation.

Current events and our Constitution

Second, the recent momentous events that were sparked off by a call by some students at the University of Cape Town for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes have reverberated across the length and breadth of our land and beyond.1 They have drawn our attention to the unfinished project of fashioning, out of a society kept apart by centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid, a new and virtuous society animated by the values of our Constitution; a more humane, a more just, a more caring, a more equitable, a fairer and an inclusive society.

The recent events also point to the sad reality that the political transition of 1994 has not been accompanied, in any tangible and meaningful way, by economic and social upliftment of the poor and marginalised majority of our society.

There is a growing and palpable disenchantment with the painfully slow pace of economic and social advancement of the poor and the marginalised in our society. Poverty, unemployment and inequality patterns still reflect the contours of our apartheid past.

More fundamentally, these events point to the frustration and impatience with the slow pace of transformation in our society, in general, and in our institutions of higher learning, in particular.

Key questions

In the context of higher education, central to the issue of transformation are the key questions of: what we teach, who teaches, how we teach, how we assess, what we value as knowledge, which scholarly voices are heard and which ones are silenced, recognition and appreciation of different lived experiences that students bring with them into the classroom, taking cognisance of different learning styles of our students, recognition and celebration of diversity and difference and leveraging them to create a rich learning experience for our students, the social and demographic composition of our academic and support staff, daily discourses and the assumptions we make about each other, alienating institutional culture, experiences of exclusion, and so on and so forth.

These are some of the important questions we must continually reflect on, and address imaginatively and creatively, if we are to become a genuinely African university and not just a university in Africa.

Rational and reasoned argument must prevail

Questions have [also] been raised about the future of the name of our university, in light of the excesses associated with the person, Cecil John Rhodes, after whom it is named.2 We welcome the opening that has been created by our students to engage, debate and discuss our complex and uncomfortable past in earnest to forge a new and shared future. However, in order for us to advance the creation of the kind of a society envisioned in our Constitution, we must refrain from making sweeping, unhelpful and, at times, hurtful generalisations. We must respect each other’s views. We shouldn’t call each other names, nor should we launch gratuitous ad hominem attacks on each other.

We should never try to delegitimise, trivialise or be dismissive of each other’s views or experiences. We should use the power of rational and reasoned argument, logic and debate to forge common ground on the issues about which we hold different views. We must also be open-minded, and willing to be persuaded to change our position on any matter based on the quality of the argument advanced.

Embrace your leadership opportunities

Ours is a nation in the making. We are a society that is still struggling to find a common set of values. We are as yet to forge a shared sense of national identity. The maturity of our 21-year-old democracy will be tested as we engage, debate and discuss our painful, complex and uncomfortable past. This will require of us to embrace, internalise and live out the values of our Constitution. It will also require mature and visionary leadership; bold and courageous leadership; leadership that is guided by values and principles and one that eschews populism. Without this kind of leadership, the issues that confront us as a nation have a potential to degenerate into racial polarisation and anarchy. We should never allow opportunists and populists to derail us from the important task of creating a society of our dreams.

My appeal to you, our graduands, is that you embrace the leadership responsibility that you will be expected to discharge as graduates of this great institution and that you do so with humility. There is no greater honour than to serve our society and humanity with honour, integrity and humility.

1. See, for example:
2. See, for example:

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2015

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