The missing link in our transformation process


There is a common thread in much of what is happening in our society today – our failure to heal the wounds of the past and embrace a system of shared values reflected in our Constitution. 

The boldness of repeated racist attacks on the dignity of citizens reflects just how deeply ingrained racism is in the mindset of many citizens. 

The extremely high levels of gender-based violence across race, class and geography is another reminder of just how deeply wounding patriarchal systems have been in shaping power relationships between men and women. Continuing marginalisation of gay, lesbians and other intersectional self-identified people is another symptom that all is not well.

Widespread corruption and abuse of state resources, in both the public and private sectors, stem from our failure to accept the rights and corresponding responsibilities of citizenship in our constitutional democracy. Citizens who have taken ownership and stewardship of our society cannot steal from themselves and undermine the socio-economic rights of those most vulnerable.

Public violence and widespread violence at the personal, family, workplace and general community levels, are indicators of our failures to make every citizen embrace self-respect, respect for other human beings and their dignity irrespective of their status, in life. We glibly talk of Ubuntu, but have yet to embrace the humanity of all as equals. Destruction of public property and endangering of the lives of others reflect a failure to understand that as citizens, we are the owners of these state resources and co-responsible and for the well-being of fellow human beings.

Apartheid legacy underestimated

We have grossly underestimated the impact of the legacy of colonial conquest and apartheid on our capacity to reinvent ourselves as citizens of a democratic just society.

The values of that legacy of a colour coded male dominated exploitative system ingrained in our mindsets undermine the evolution of a shared identity as South Africans characterised by respect for human rights, dignity and equality for all under the law. 

A recently released book by Rudi Buys, Brugbouers, demonstrates how deeply embedded racism, sexism and chauvinism have become ingrained in us, leading to the humiliation of black support staff by young white Afrikaners at the Reitz residence at the University of the Free State in 2007. 

The most important lessons from this well written book is that the conspiracy of silence about our ugly past in our homes, schools, work places and places of worship perpetuate racism and sexism. Conversations about how we are to heal ourselves and embrace a shared value system reflecting a human rights culture are essential to transforming our society.

Imprisoning racists and sexists is unlikely to halt the onslaught of racism and sexism. It will require much more concerted effort for citizens to embrace one another as inter-connected and inter-dependent people. "Othering" one another remains the default mode of our social relationships.

The legacy of our ugly divided past also continues to undermine the development of a sense of ownership of this beautiful country by all citizens. Over the last 24 years a growing proportion of poor people who feel betrayed have become desperate leading to public violence and destruction of public property.

Continuing and growing inequalities demonstrated by the statistics that 10% of our population own 95% of the wealth and earn 65% of the income, are a barrier to the majority of citizens embracing their rights and responsibilities as stewards of our constitutional democracy. Land and property ownership patterns over centuries set the stage for these inequalities. Fundamental land restitution is urgently needed to give dignity to those excluded.

The founders of our democracy understood that the journey from our ugly divided colour coded male dominated past to the future we envisaged would be a long difficult one. They built a road map into the Preamble of our Constitution framed as commitments we made to ourselves as "We the People" to adopt the Constitution as the supreme law of the republic.  

We are to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights and lay the foundations of a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law.

Championing conversations that listen to all voices

It is more urgent than ever before for us as citizens to secure the future of our constitutional democracy by championing conversations that involve respectful listening to all voices. We need to acknowledge the need for all of us to heal and embrace a shared value system that puts respect for human dignity at the centre of our social relationships.

It starts at home. What kind of conversations are we having around the dinner table? What remains unsaid in our conspiracy to hide our shame about the past? What conversations are fathers having with their sons about what it means to be a man in a gender equal society? What messages are mothers and fathers giving to their sons and daughters about growing in a society where human dignity and equality is the norm?

How are we to engage with schools to ensure that Life Orientation becomes an effective platform for conversations to prepare young people to become informed, critical thinking responsible citizens? How effective have we been in advocating for the teaching of African history and culture, including languages, to help young people grow up with pride about being citizens of the cradle of humanity and significant contributor to world civilization? Higher education needs to continue these conversations to graduate values-based citizens and leaders.

Workplaces continue to reflect dominance of white males in senior management and leadership positions with 70% of CEOs being white and male.  What conversations are being promoted to ensure that the cultures of our workplaces actively challenge racism, sexism and chauvinism under the direct leadership of the CEO of each institution? Structural impediments to equality of all and the unleashing of the talents of every person are widespread in our corporates as in public services. Worldwide lessons show that creating institutional cultural milieus that promote human dignity and open conversations enhance greater trust and higher productivity. It is simply good business.

Many places of worship have yet to rise to their calling to be fountains of healing for wounded people across the spectrum. Promoting conversations about how we embrace a shared human rights value system that affirms the humanity of all would go a long way to helping us live more holistic lives. 

Our national challenge is to invest in the "inner work" of harmonising the values that govern our spiritual, intellectual and physical wellbeing in all our social relationships. Mindset change from a wounded one to a mindset that embraces the human rights culture espoused by our constitution is attainable. We need to commit to a human rights culture and invest in ensuring that it becomes our way of life. This is the only way we can reset the national mindset to one promoting a just prosperous society.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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