The Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa

If you tune in to Cape Talk or Radio702 right now, you can listen to the launch of the “Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa“, and hear the Minister of Basic Education and representatives from LeadSA explain why they think this is a great initiative.

They would think so, of course, seeing as the Bill is the creation of the Department of Education and LeadSA. It’s also sanctified by the National Religious Leaders Forum. But they are all wrong, and this is a counter-productive move.

First, as I’ve said before in related contexts, it makes the mistake of presenting religion and religious leaders as the moral authorities in society. They can certainly have their say, but to prevent legitimate suspicions of a failure to think things through, representation from civil society more broadly – especially the non-religious – would be necessary.

Second, the Bill is not simply a list of the responsibilities that correlate with our Bill of Rights. That would be a relatively simple list – for example, the right to life would correlate with the responsibility to not kill people. But that sort of list would not be inspirational, and we know that LeadSA likes inspirational. Their call to light a candle for Mandela is a good example of this, where a completely meaningless activity is suggested (and again, associated with prayer), instead of perhaps exhorting South Africans to do something useful, like donate time or money to an NGO like Equal Education. I think we can quite safely predict which of these two options Mandela would prefer you to choose.

No, instead this list goes far beyond our Bill of Rights, and creates a whole new set of obligations, some of which are utterly misguided. While they claim that the “12 responsibilities flow from each of the 12 rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa”, this is false. The responsibility to greet people warmly, “and speak to them courteously”, does not flow from the Constitution. The Constitution secured important liberties which most in our country lacked, and one of those liberties is to be as rude as you please, to whomever you please.

There are plenty of these sorts of aspirational sentiments, aimed at a grassroots social engineering. And that’s fine, but not if it comes from government, via the Department of Education. Because the sentiments in this Bill endorse the idea of a nanny state, which is not consistent with the essential commitment to personal liberty in the Constitution. Especially in the instance of one clause in the Bill, which explicitly undermines our liberty. On freedom of belief and religion, the Bill says we are obliged to:

respect the beliefs and opinions of others, and their right to express these, even when we may strongly disagree with these beliefs and opinions. That is what it means to be a free democracy

That’s not what it means at all. Part of it is true, namely the right that people have to express beliefs we disagree with strongly. But we certainly have no obligation to respect beliefs and opinions. People we can respect, sure, but we do so by holding them to account for their opinions. By telling them when they are wrong, and explaining why, so that they can be better informed. We count on other people to do the same for us, so that we don’t fall prey to dogmatism and the sleep of reason ourselves.

This is not leading SA. This is dumbing things down into slogans and cliche, and LeadSA can sod off.

More will be said on this next week, so apologies for the hasty and scantily justified rant above.

Postscript: See here for my alternative Bill of Responsibilities.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.