Opinionista Kayum Ahmed 1 July 2014

Mind the values gap: Do we really believe in the Constitution?

It seems counter-intuitive to want to develop human rights education strategies focused on the highly educated in our society. However, given the role played by the educated elite in decision-making, it is imperative that we start bridging the values gap by acknowledging that it is not only the poor who need to be ‘workshopped’.

South Africans often proudly proclaim that our Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. Yet if you ask most South Africans how they really feel about gay rights, abortion and the death penalty, their answers, more often than not, contradict the values enshrined in the Constitution.

Understanding this “values gap” between our personal values on the one hand, and Constitutional values on the other, is important because it provides us with insights into the nature of South African society. Our values and attitudes underlie our behaviour, and our behaviour defines who we are.

So who are we? If we define ourselves based on the values enshrined in the Constitution, then we appear to be a progressive, just and equitable nation. However, before we start patting ourselves on the back, a recent Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) study suggests that 63% of us are opposed to same sex relationships, 43% of us support bringing back the death penalty and 73% of our population believe that a woman cannot refuse sex with her husband if he demands it. By the way, that last statistic includes women respondents to the survey.

Given the gap between our personal values and the values enshrined in the Constitution, the question we are confronted with is: how do we bridge this values gap? The response one often receives is: education. More specifically, human rights education.

The logic is that if we teach people about the rights in the Constitution, they are more likely to understand and accept these rights. The FHR study seems to support this contention. It found that only 25% of those without formal education had knowledge of the Constitution, compared with about 70% of those with matric and 95% of respondents with post-matric qualifications. The more educated you are, the more likely it is that you will have knowledge of the Constitution.

And you would think that the more knowledge you have of the Constitution, the more likely your values will mirror constitutional values. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case.

As part of my studies on human rights education, I tested this hypothesis by conducting a survey of students currently participating in a South African masters degree programme in one of the most prestigious international human rights law programmes in the country.

All of the students enrolled in the masters programme participated in the anonymous survey which compared their personal values to the constitutional values. The results were fascinating.

On the question of whether gay people should have the right to marry, 56% agreed that same-sex couples should have this right, 22% strongly disagreed and 22% stated that they were uncertain.

About 42% of the class supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while 50% of students were opposed to abortion and the remainder (8%) were unsure.

Approximately 17% of students supported the death penalty, compared to 76% of students who were opposed to the death penalty. The remainder (7%) indicated that they were uncertain.

We assume that most, if not all students studying human rights law would fully support human rights principles, and therefore would be supportive of the values enshrined in the Constitution. However, only 62% agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “My personal values are the same as the values in the Bill of Rights.” Twenty-five percent of students disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement while 13% were uncertain.

Some of these masters students are likely to go on to teach other students. Many of them may go on to become judges and policy makers, given their level of expertise and education.

What do you think will happen when those masters students become policy makers, and those policy makers are confronted with questions pertaining to gender equality and same sex rights? Are they likely to follow their personal values on the question of abortion? Will 50% of them argue that a woman does not have the right to choose? When an angry public calls for reinstating the death penalty, will they use their influence to sway the agenda?

When comparing the results of my survey to the FHR survey, it is evident that the values gap exhibited by the masters students is far smaller than the gap between the personal and constitutional values of most South Africans. For instance, 56% of the students supported same sex relationships compared with 37% of South Africans.

This means that human rights education does appear to have a positive impact on bridging the values gap but its effect is not quite as compelling as proponents of human rights education have led us to believe. So, while it is tempting to conclude that all we need to bridge the values gap in human rights education, this appears to be only part of the solution.

People with low levels of education are often targeted through human rights education programmes. This is important, but I would argue that it is insufficient. The evidence shows that the values gap amongst those of us who have acquired masters degrees and have been appointed as decision makers – judges, teachers, policy specialists and political office bearers – remains significant, and so a strategy must be developped to address this tier of people.

It seems counter-intuitive to want to develop human rights education strategies focused on the highly educated in our society. However, given the role played by the educated elite in decision-making, it is imperative that we start bridging the values gap by acknowledging that it is not only the poor who need to be ‘workshopped’. The personal beliefs and values of the privileged and powerful need some shaking up too.

But as you know, we educated types do not like being questioned. We know what’s best for you. Well, at least 62% of us do. DM

Kayum Ahmed is the Chief Executive of the South African Human Rights Commission

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