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Lead SA’s Bill of Responsibilities: because we need to do something

Karl Gostner is Primedia Broadcasting’s General Manager in the Western Cape. In addition to this role he is a passionate member of the Lead SA leadership group.

It is just more than a week since Lead SA, together with the department of basic education and the South African Interfaith Council, launched the Bill of Responsibilities. It has been a gratifying time with many teachers and parents congratulating us on a great initiative. Simultaneously we have been met with some trenchant criticism. In the nature of these things some of the criticism has been vitriolic and poorly thought-through while some has been considered and thought-provoking. Along the way criticism has also been made of Lead SA’s overall project, so I will take the opportunity to address both criticisms.

Lead SA started with the desire to make a difference, to inspire, celebrate and motivate for an engaged, active citizenry. We knew the history of South Africa was the history of thousands seeking to make a difference and we wanted to help keep that flame alive.

In the weeks running up to the launch in August 2010 there were many moments when we paused and asked whether we should pull the plug. In some moments, the objective seemed too big to tackle. In others we doubted ourselves and wondered whether we were the right people to initiate this call to action. We feared the criticism and the unknown. The debates within Primedia Broadcasting and the Independent Group of Newspapers were vigorous and often heated. To be brutally honest, we had no idea where Lead SA might go to or into what it might evolve. To be even more honest, we are still finding our way. We swing wildly between wanting to be a mega-NGO and remaining true to our founding purpose which is to inspire an active citizenry through celebrating South Africans that make a difference. Often we’ve ended up somewhere in the middle – tackling all and large projects that have been brought to us by our listeners and readers – while simultaneously telling the stories of people who are making a difference in our country. We do all of this while running our companies, keeping people employed and fulfilling our license mandates. It is a project of passion and purpose.

Despite our initial uncertainty, Lead SA has had some staggering successes in the mere eight months it’s been alive. The Cape Argus launched a Name-and-Shame campaign that named people convicted of drunk driving. The instant result was fewer drunk drivers on our roads. It is an initiative that has the capacity to save lives. Ster-Kinekor opened its theatres for matric students to receive extra tuition to make up for learning time lost through strikes. Talk Radio 702 mobilised volunteers to help out in under-staffed hospitals – people who hadn’t been to a state hospital in years were suddenly cleaning floors to help out. We’ve raised millions to support the fight against rhino poaching. With Dial Direct we’ve filled thousands of potholes on Gauteng roads, improving traffic flow and general safety on the roads.

We’ve also engaged in the symbolic and the sentimental. We’re human after all. Emotion is an important part of being alive. Yes, we called on people to light candles for Madiba. What the critics miss is the fact that thousands of South Africans were already praying for, lighting candles for and thinking about Madiba in that moment. All we did was to amplify what South Africans were already doing. There’ve been the lighter moments – the thousands on the streets of Sandton to support our soccer team and Proteas Fridays.  Symbolic action is critical to social cohesion. Yes, it’s warm and fuzzy. That’s the point. It inspires. Very little is achieved by people who aren’t inspired and so Lead SA unashamedly seeks to inspire.

Lead SA is about fostering and celebrating an engaged, active citizenry. To that extent, the launch of the Bill of Responsibilities has already been a success. It has triggered a heated and engaged debate about what rights we enjoy as South Africans. Some of the criticism has angered us because it has been deeply personal. As businesses and individuals we are committed to a democratic South Africa. To imply that we are party to an undertaking that “would not have been out of place in apartheid South Africa” is outrageous and angers us to the point of rage. Still, it has activated a conversation about our Bill of Rights and what we need to do (or not do) to entrench and further those rights. That is a success.

When last was there such intense and wide debate about our rights? Jacques Rousseau is launching a project to write another version of the bill. I don’t know if he had such intentions before the launch of the Bill of Responsibilities, but the fact that he is doing it is fantastic. The more people that engage in active debate and action to further our rights, the better off we all are.  
The criticism of the Bill of Responsibilities has fallen into three main areas.

Khadija Patel has eloquently outlined one of the key challenges faced by Lead SA and the Bill of Responsibilities, namely the need to foster a grassroots movement, to create an authentic connection with young people who wish to make a difference. She is absolutely right. It is a massive challenge and it’s not something to which we have easy answers. In the final analysis this is not our project alone. Nothing under Lead SA ever is. We are continuously seeking projects and partners to advance the goal of active citizenship. More than that, we want to hear the stories of people who are actively making a difference – we wish to celebrate them, because they inspire us all.

The second criticism is that Lead SA and its partners have sought to limit the rights enjoyed under the Constitution by introducing obligations and curtailing the space for critical engagement. Let me be clear, neither Lead SA nor the Bill of Responsibilities say that fulfilling the responsibilities are a necessary condition for one to enjoy the rights granted under the Constitution. Those rights exist in law and are guaranteed by the Constitution. What we are clear about is that the protection and advancement of those rights requires an active engagement in society that is the responsibility of all committed South Africans.

The point is best made in the Teacher’s Guide for the Bill of Responsibilities (p.4) that states “The Bill of Responsibilities is a reminder for the youth of South Africa that even though we all have and should enjoy rights like equality, respect, dignity and life, this cannot happen unless we also take responsibility to act in ways that protect, ensure and uphold these rights”.

The Bill of Responsibility is a statement that we all share a responsibility to ensure that our rights as citizens are upheld, advanced and entrenched across our society. Of course, one’s rights exist in law and one has no legal obligation to act to advance them, but if one doesn’t, those rights will inevitably become meaningless or even potentially eroded over time. By way of illustration, the Constitution grants the right to vote. The Bill of Responsibility asks that one participates actively in the affairs of the country. There is no legal requirement to vote, but if no-one takes the responsibility to exercise that right then democracy is jeopardised. That is the call of the Bill of Responsibility – know your rights and take responsibility in ensuring their advancement.

Much has been made of the responsibility to “respect the belief and opinion of others” and to “cooperate respectfully with teachers and fellow learners”. The argument has been that these responsibilities reduce the space for a culture of critical engagement, a culture that is essential to fostering an engaged citizenry. Much goes to what is meant by respect and indeed the Oxford Dictionary shows how this meaning is contested. In two instances the meaning of respect is to take “consideration for the feeling or rights of others” or “take cognizance of”. In another interpretation it may be taken to mean “admiration”. Certainly our perspective is that one’s responsibility is to consider another’s right to their opinion and it requires that one takes cognizance that other perspectives exist. It most certainly doesn’t require that one admires every perspective under the sun. We all have a responsibility to ensure the space for the contestation of ideas and activism. Indeed the Teachers Manual recommends that teachers “Create opportunities for the learners in your class to become ‘activists’ and to take action where they are able on issues that they feel are in need of attention both inside of their school and outside in the community”. This is hardly the mandate of an initiative that, intentionally or otherwise, seeks to reduce the space for the contestation of ideas.

The third area of criticism is that the Bill is misguided in suggesting that one has a responsibility to be “kind and loyal”, “compassionate” or “give generously to charity”. Again, there is no Constitutional obligation to do any of these things to secure your rights. However, if you wish to create an environment that furthers human rights, each of these actions will help strengthen that culture. Ubuntu has informed much of our public policy. The Bill of Responsibilities encapsulates similar sentiments. In the seminal Constitutional Court case of the State versus Makwanyane, Mokgoro,J. wrote that ubuntu “envelops the key values of group solidarity, compassion, respect, human dignity, conformity to basic norms and collective unity, in its fundamental sense it denotes humanity and morality. Its spirit emphasises respect for human dignity.” It is this spirit that informs Lead SA and the Bill of Responsibilities. It is the spirit that says that I acknowledge that I am not a soulless atom adrift in the world, but that I am a person through other people. Ubuntu requires that I act responsibly in relation to the well-being of others.

The Bill of Responsibilities is a step towards encouraging young South Africans to take responsibility for the furtherance of their rights, to fight actively for a country that affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. It is not the only step. There will be other ideas. We welcome them. The intent is to encourage young people and others to take responsibility for the amazing Constitution they’ve inherited so that our country can continue to make the miraculous strides it has already made. DM

Karl Gostner is Primedia Broadcasting’s General Manager in the Western Cape. In addition to this role he is a passionate member of the Lead SA leadership group.


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