External World Morality Religion

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.

19 replies on “The Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa”

Dude. Without taking anything away from your very valid observations,
I wouldn’t lose sleep over this. Sure it’s sanctioned by everyone and their mothers
but the reality is that this is an irresponsible publicity stunt.
Nothing more.
I predict temporary traction (if any) before it loses public interest
faster than a Pop Idol winner.

Thank you for articulating very serious reservations I had with this whole initiative so succintly and clearly. I agree with you, this whole ‘Bill of Responsibilities’ is all bull and bluster from some misguided, albeit well intentioned, people (to put it politely)

Thanks Vincent. Many are responding to me, saying that this is an over-reaction. But kids are going to be taught that you can’t say hurtful things, and that you must respect all views, etc. – and that’s not good. Look out for two columns (Ivo Vegter’s and mine) on this issue at The Daily Maverick next week.

Very good article. Even before I read the Bill, I was worried by it being drawn up by a religious body. And it shows, as in: not discriminate unfairly against anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion, national-, ethnic- or social origin, disability, culture, language, status or appearance. So is it okay to discriminate against a specific sexual orientation?

Thanks. LeadSA responded to me on the sexual orientation thing, claiming it was an oversight and that they would fix it right away. Whether you believe that story or not, it’s still not fixed, even on the web-page (which would be quick and easy). And then, what about all the posters they’ve no doubt already printed? Will those be pulped? I doubt it.

It’s been 24 hours and their site still hates homos. Have put it down to the religious thing.

Hi Jacques and Simon,

It was absolutely an omission that sexual orientation was not included in one section of the Lead SA site. It was in fact included in the downloads and other documentation on the site that relate to the Bill of Responsibilities. If you’d purchased The Star, Pretoria News or Cape Argus today you would also have seen that sexual orientation was included in the posters that were inserted into the newspaper.

The site has been corrected. Thank you once again for flagging it.



My initial reaction to the above blog post was to disregard it. My perspective was that the Mr. Rousseau like so many in the blogosphere, clearly wished to score a few cheap points with typically intemperate language or, as he so honestly puts it, a “hasty and scantily justified rant”. Hardly worth responding to, but then I kept coming back to the last line of the post that states so baldly, “Lead SA can sod off”.

I believe in what Lead SA stands for. I believe that an active citizenry can make a difference. I believe that our country has been built by individuals, both famous and uncelebrated, who made and make enormous sacrifices to get it to where it is and I believe that together we can make it an even better place for all to live in. So, I’ve decided to respond. I won’t be told to sod off for being part of initiative that I believe will make a difference. More importantly these are serious issues and debate is to be welcomed – that after all is one of Lead SA’s intents, that we focus our energies on debate and action that makes a difference to our country.

Yes, Lead SA likes inspirational. Show me a person, a project, a movement that has had a sustained positive impact on society that isn’t inspirational. The ability to inspire a vision is central to enabling others to act. It creates the space in which others believe “I can do that”. The ability to inspire is what drives progress forward. We are inspired by our country, inspired by its achievement and inspired by its possibilities. This is a vision that we wish to share. In doing so, we sure as heck are going to be inspirational.

Let me be clear, Lead SA deliberately seeks out stories and events that inspire. Whether it is the story of the principal who has turned her school around or it is encouraging tens of thousands of South Africans to hit the streets of Sandton to unite behind their football team, we like the inspirational. We do this because we know that there is so much excellence in our country that deserves to be celebrated and, more importantly, supported. As for what our former President, Nelson Mandela may or may not have done I cannot claim to speak on his behalf. What I do know is that he consistently used symbolic gestures, whether it was donning a rugby jersey or throwing down the gauntlet in his Rivonia trial speech, to inspire our nation. I am proud of the ways in which Lead SA tries to inspire our country. We may not always get it right, but we are making the effort.
That said, Lead SA is so much more than that – something that the author chooses to ignore. Lead SA is Talk Radio 702’s listeners donating money to support the fight against rhino poaching. Lead SA is Ster-Kinekor opening its cinemas so that matric students can watch revision exercises for the exams. Lead SA is the Cape Argus naming and shaming people convicted of drunk driving and in so doing driving down the number of drunk-driving incidents in Cape Town. Lead SA is the South African who contacts one of Primedia’s radio stations to tell us how someone helped them out and then said that they were ‘leading SA’. It is not only the inspirational; it is making a difference in countless ways – every single day.

Lead SA is also the Bill of Responsibilities. Yes, it does seek to inspire. It seeks to inspire our youth to know their rights and then to find active ways to make those rights live for themselves and others. It opens a conversation about how we are all responsible for creating a country that “affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”. I cannot accept that one of the liberties that the Bill of Rights seeks to secure is, as the author puts it ‘to be as rude as you please, to whomever you please’. Certainly such a sentiment rests uneasily next to the wording of Section 10 of the Constitution that states “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”. I am also fairly sure that if you exercised your ‘right to be rude’ in a courtroom, you’d place yourself at risk of being found to be in contempt of court. I am not a constitutional lawyer so will not pretend to be able to adjudicate between the competing claims of the right to rudeness and the right to have my dignity protected. That said, I am quite clear that I wouldn’t want to live in a society that defines itself by its freedom to be rude. Surely, our Bill of Rights is more than that? Surely one should look to the rights that the TAC and Irene Grootboom, amongst others, have so famously tested and seek ways to extend them? Surely our Bill of Rights is far too rich, far too inspirational to be reduced to the right to be rude?

Certainly, the Bill of Responsibilities is so much more than the one line that author chooses to focus in on. There are many other responsibilities – ‘to give generously’; ‘to solve conflict in a peaceful manner’; ‘not to discriminate unfairly’; ‘to promote and reflect a culture of learning’ – all of which, we believe, will contribute to building social cohesion, to playing to those strengths that define South Africans, the strength that says ‘we can make a difference’. Importantly the Bill of Responsibilities clearly defines the importance of ‘respect(ing) the beliefs and opinions of others, and their RIGHTS TO EXPRESS THESE (my capitalisation), even when we may strongly disagree…”. This is hardly an attempt to close the space for democratic debate, but rather to support and strengthen an environment of robust debate without a culture of intimidation.

The Bill of Responsibilities is the start of a conversation about further entrenching the rights we have as a country and our shared responsibility to make them live. It is the start, hopefully of action and we’re open to suggestions as to how to do it better. Let’s hear them…

Thanks for the lengthy comment, Karl. Your response does, however, not read my post in any sort of context, and I think that your claims are consequently off the mark. When I say that LeadSA can ‘sod off’, that’s in the context of LeadSA telling me I should be polite – it’s not an expression of preference as to the society I would prefer to live in. An argument as to why being polite and respectful is one thing, and telling us that it’s our responsibility – and Constitutionally mandated – quite another. I also support the bulk of LeadSA’s goals, and can understand the strategy of trying to inspire. I simply think you can do so in a way that’s compatible with reinforcing the commitment to freedom, and free speech, that you find in the Constitution.

I don’t reduce the Constitution to ‘the right to be rude’. That’s a gross straw-manning of the argument, and what is allowed to happen in court is not necessarily relevant to the discourse of civil society. The one is a far more constrained legal space, with certain precise rules for conduct. Our general rules simply prohibit hate speech that is an incitement to harm. As I say, I don’t ask that we aspire to rudeness – just that we don’t insist that politeness is required. You’re also missing the point that this is a DoE-endorsed Bill, to be taught in schools as fact, and the ‘facts’ are not as clear as they are made out to be.

Respecting the rights of others to express their view says all that needed to be said. The requirement to actually respect those views was an unnecessary inclusion, and one that none of us should consider acceptable. As for your opening lines, which say that I “clearly wished to score a few cheap points with typically intemperate language or, as he so honestly puts it, a “hasty and scantily justified rant””, I’ll have to just assume that this is the first post or column of mine you’ve read. Except when it comes to religion, my language is far from intemperate, and this is exactly the sort of topic that’s been a focus of mine for many years. It’s not a matter of scoring cheap points, as you say in your attempt to poison the well, but more that measures such as the Bill can legitimately be considered to present threats to rational reflection and conversation, regardless of their noble intentions.

If you want to ‘start a conversation’, surely there are more inviting ways to do it than to convene a group consisting of only the religious, who draft a document that is then put into every school. Where was the conversation? I’d wager that most of those who are now badgering LeadSA with their intemperate blogosphere language would gladly have joined, if they had been invited to do so.

I am in broad agreement with at least the sentiment of LeadSA. So when I heard about the BOO I thought it wouldn’t really do any harm, although the idea of someone trying to place Polyanna obligations on me left me vaguely uneasy.

However, while listening to the launch of the BOO on the radio last week, I was alarmed to hear that this Bill was drafted by the SA Interfaith Council and, importantly, that this will be taught at all schools. No matter their protestations that this is a secular document, I remain deeply suspicious of any religious body drafting any part of the school curriculum that will be taught to my children.

What do these people know about morality, about ethics and further down the road, about obligations? If a kid had to ask “why?” a few times during these lessons, what sort of answers could you expect? It will necessarily lead to something like “because the Bible says so”.

If they really had to do this exercise, why not enlist proper secular thought-leaders, such as the fine ethicists in South African academia? Then this programme would have had some legitimacy.

Personally i think it is the the responsibility of parents to instill values such as “being polite” in their children. but then again i have no kids so i wouldnt know what raising them would mean. What with Mtv doing a great job and “children’s rights” being the first big words these born free’s learn.

we are a lazy society and it is to the detriment of these kids, we are not focusing on what needs to be done. I do not doubt the “good intentions” of leadSA i am just disappointed that they were not smart enough to realise a farce when one is starring them right in the eye. But then again all that depends soley on why they do the things you do, “publicity stunts much!”

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