The buck starts here
23 April 2014 11:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The bill of bunkum

  • Ivo Vegter
Since some at The Daily Maverick seem to be opposed to Lead SA's Bill of Responsibilities, it falls to me to defend it. Just kidding. No self-proclaimed patriots have the right to tell us how we should live our lives or what moral values should guide us. It is our basic human right not to be so oppressed by people we don't even know.

“The discourse of liberation was strong in the demand for dignity and restoration of human rights. Relatively, less emphasis was placed upon the equal and complementary significance of responsibility.”

So said Ebrahim I Bham (Moulana), the secretary general of Jamiatul Ulama South Africa and executive member of the National Religious Leaders Forum, on the occasion of the launch of a “Bill of Responsibilities”. This campaign is a joint effort by Lead SA – itself a patriotic initiative of Primedia Broadcasting and Independent Newspapers – in association with the Department of Education and the South African Interfaith Council.

There was good reason for this lack of “emphasis”. The notion of imposing responsibilities and duties upon free people contradicts the very principles of liberty that the constitutional negotiators were trying to establish in South Africa.

It's not like these negotiators were mere activists or neophytes in political philosophy. People like Ismael Mahomed, Cyril Ramaphosa, Joe Slovo and Frederick van Zyl Slabbert were well aware of the purpose of a Bill of Rights. They, and the many other delegates to the Congress for a Democratic South Africa in the early 1990s, deeply understood the role of a constitution, the nature of law, and the proper relationship between a free people and its government.

It is not that, as Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motsheka, said at the launch of the Bill of Responsibilities, “all rights come with obligations”.

This might by catchy rhetoric, or be a worthy personal ambition, but as a principle of freedom it is patently false. The rights enshrined in our Constitution as Chapter 2, known as the Bill of Rights, are unconditional. They are yours by virtue of your citizenship of South Africa. They do not need to be earned.

Importantly, the Bill of Rights exists first and foremost to bind the state. To quote section 8.1 of the Constitution of South Africa: “The Bill of Rights applies to all law, and binds the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and all organs of state.”

These rights can bind individual citizens, the section goes on to say, but only “to the extent that it is applicable, taking into account the nature of the right and the nature of any duty imposed by the right.”

The line isn't quite sharp and tidy, but in general, we're protected from each other by statutory law, and we're protected from the government by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Besides the sleight-of-hand with which the government and Lead SA claim we have obligations as a consequence of our constitutional rights, the Bill of Responsibilities is also very paternalistic in its purpose and formulation. It would not have been out of place in the Apartheid State, when the National Party was just as eager to impose duties on citizens instead of respecting their individual rights. In fact, the more oppressive a society is, the more likely you are to find paternalistic education, emphasising patriotic duty and moral responsibility, in schools.

Yet it is none of the government's business what citizens do with their rights, or how they live their lives, provided they don't violate the rights and liberties of others.

Aneshree Naidoo, a freelance writer and online marketing consultant for a large law firm, put it brilliantly: “It's like a madam scolding her domestic about how she spends her salary.”

It is exactly like that. It is presumptuous, sanctimonious and arrogant. It implies that other people are immature and inferior, and need our moralistic browbeating.

“The many ills of our society can be traced to the absence of a moral and a values code in our daily interaction with each other,” intoned Moegsien Williams, editor of The Star. “Our hope, with the Bill of Responsibilities, is to inculcate a set of values in the minds of our children when they are at an impressionable age and which they’ll live by as grownups.”

That's as good a definition of indoctrination as any. Who is Williams, or anyone else, to dictate values to our children? Moral values are born of individual conviction and have to be developed from a consistent set of underlying principles, which may or may not be religious in origin. They are not a fit subject for classroom indoctrination.

As if to make the point, the Bill of Responsibilities goes well beyond the rules for civilised living that are enshrined in law. It doesn't just say not to steal from, assault, or murder people.

It tells us to obey the law, and “ensuring that others do so as well”. Picture the scene: “Step aside, officer, this is my responsibility.”

It exhorts us to “give generously” to charity and good causes. It isn't for someone else to declare that we have a responsibility to give to charity, and implying that our own rights somehow depend on it.

It talks about “climate change”, “sustainable development” and “scarce resources” in a way that implies we have a responsibility not to disagree with the economic views or political ideology held by environmentalists.

Apart from dubious economics, the document gets worse. It includes patently ridiculous strictures such as treating people with “reverence”, and “greeting them warmly”. It not only asks us to respect the right of others to believe what they will, but also to respect the beliefs themselves, even if we think they're mistaken, crazy or sinful.

It flatly contradicts our law by imposing the responsibility to “not endanger the lives of others by carrying dangerous weapons”.

It tells us to eat correctly and exercise. Who made Lead SA our collective mother?

Still it isn't done. It declares that we “must ensure” that “others are not insulted or have their feelings hurt” by our exercise of free speech.

Aw, bunny. Does that mean one cannot call a civil servant incompetent? Or call a religious nut a nut? Or call ecomentalism a neurotic guilt-trip? Or call the well-intentioned Lead SA lot a bunch of self-important, patronising nannies? Or describe the Department of Education's endorsement of all this politically-correct tripe as dangerous petty-fascism?

Ironically, the Bill of Responsibilities itself hurt people's feelings. In a departure from the Bill of Rights it claims to mirror, it omitted “sexual orientation” from the grounds for non-discrimination. Needless to say, gays and lesbians (and those of us who believe queers are people too) felt insulted. That the document gave such offence was perhaps to be expected given the heavy religious overtones of the campaign, but it does make the point that “responsibilities” aren't moral just because they say they are. We shouldn't uncritically accept the preachings of sanctimonious crusaders who claim to have only our best interests at heart. (The document was quietly amended since its launch to correct this embarrassing oversight, but that only raises the question what other changes will come about surreptitiously.)

The Bill of Responsibilities is not law. For that, let's be thankful. It lays the groundwork for law, however, and certainly imposes a great deal of social pressure for its nanny-state provisions.

Without much consultation, the powers that be have decided that the Bill of Responsibilities will form part of the national curriculum. This is wrong on many levels, not least of which is the fact that the document suffers from a rather embarrassing lack of sub-editing.

I quote (having checked the text on three different browsers): “My responsibility in ensuring the right to The right to equality places on me the responsibility to: equality.”

Right. Well then. If you say so. Let the indoctrination begin. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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