Humanise our society

2010-02-02 00:00

THE most important, yet very difficult task for the Jacob Zuma­ government is to lead the process of rehumanising our society. This is a crucial part of the unfinished task of reversing the legacy of apartheid. It is the duty of governments everywhere to create a humane society marked by economic prosperity and social order. This is all the more important in the case of social democracies such as ours. The complex transition away from colonialism and apartheid, which we are in the middle of, makes this of particular importance to us.

Humanising society is a difficult item to fit into a political manifesto and normal government programme of action. Governments tend to plan in five-year cycles due to electoral time horizons. As a result, the need to produce some results in order for the ruling party to win the next round of elections often causes governments to give disproportionate attention to quick fixes.

Social critic Paulo Frere suggests in his famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that humanisation is made necessary by the distortion that certain societies experience. These distortions often result from oppressive systems that rob people of their humanity­ and alienate them from mainstream society. Hence, humanisation entails a struggle­ for emancipation from oppression, marginalisation and alienation.

But this struggle should not lead to the oppressed becoming oppressors. Rather, it should be about the oppressed becoming restorers of the humanity of both. Thus, it is the task of the oppressed to liberate both themselves and their oppressors. This rings true for our government today. As the former oppressed, there is a moral duty to strive for a lot more than mere service delivery to former oppressed and oppressors.

Public discontent that explodes in the form of public protests has only partly to do with material conditions. It also has to do with the dehumanising effects of colonialism and apartheid. No number of amenities will enable the dehumanised to live their lives to the full. Actually, the loss of humanity leads to the common tendency for beneficiaries of service delivery to trash newly constructed public facilities, rent Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses out and return to the slums, squander water and energy services, and engage in other social ills.

I like recalling cases in the past few years where protesters were shown coming out of new RDP houses to protest the lack of housing. Maybe for these people these tangibles are an inadequate antidote to their dehumanisation. They do not return to them the human dignity they lost under oppression. It may be that they don’t feel fully consulted with regard to the needs of their hearts. It may be that in the eyes of the poor, the helping hand of the government resembles that of a former oppressor trying to atone for its wrongs. They may see service delivery as false generosity because their condition has not changed and the system that delivers it is still alien to them. No amount of golden eggs are going to change their spontaneous response to the goose that once was the oppressor.

Frere argues that true generosity “lies in striving so that these hands [of the oppressed] … need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” This is about recognising the fact that the dehumanised possess an innate capacity to work with their own hands to transform the world around them. Only once they are liberated from the cycle of victimisation will they be rendered more than passive recipients of someone else’s generosity.

In South Africa, interventions against poverty should not focus excessively on the material dimensions of the condition, but should also address the whole psychology of poverty that generates violence and loss of moral fabric. Measures to improve education should not focus on tangibles at the expense of related problems of socialisation. Anti-corruption efforts will be inadequate if they do not include earnest moral regeneration and the disintegration of indigenous social support systems.

The job will not be complete until citizens experience total liberation and feel fully involved in the struggle to humanise society. There was a very helpful initiative by civil society between 1995 and 1997 that was called the poverty hearings. Although criticised for lacking tangible answers for the poor, these forums in various communities throughout South Africa provided opportunities for the dehumanised to speak out and thus take charge of their liberation.

Genuine, inclusive and regular social dialogue is a very important part of the humanisation process. Civil society has a big role to play with regard to encouraging natural forums for social interaction. However, it has yet to come to terms with its changed role in a democracy. It still interprets its independence to mean confrontation and protests. It is divided and lacks leadership.

Members of think-tanks like myself, just like academics, tend to be aloof and divorced from realities on the ground. Although expected to offer advice to policy actors and civil society, we have reduced ourselves to ivory towers, ill-equipped to be of much use to both the policy actor and activist.

Business is largely divided by competition for markets, even in its conduct of corporate social responsibility. Business needs its own discussions about humanising business before it can join hands with the government and civil society in an effort to rehumanise South Africa.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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