“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” are the famous words of Thomas Hobbes describing life in the “state of nature” – a world without the civilising forces of organised society. The sacred enterprise of humanity is to build societies in which human beings can flourish and the human spirit can achieve its fullest expression.
The Hebrew Bible teaches that when Noah and his children were rebuilding civilisation after the flood, God gave commandments for them to build the moral infrastructure of the world, including a just legal system whose principles are fairly and rigorously applied and enforced, as well as certain basic moral duties such as respect for life, family and property.
The message here is that, together with physical infrastructure, any successful society requires moral infrastructure that enables the human spirit to flourish.
How do we strengthen this moral infrastructure? Quite simply, by creating a culture of responsibility; a steadfast commitment to upholding the dignity, welfare and other rights of all human beings, and a steadfast appreciation for values such as service, integrity and accountability. In essence it is about living with the value of personal responsibility.
From the beginning of time, human beings have struggled with responsibility. The Book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. Their immediate response is to hide – literally – from responsibility. Then, when God confronts Adam with his misdeed, he tries to shift the responsibility. He blames Eve. Eve, in turn, blames the serpent. That same impulse, tragically, is passed on to the next generation. Their son Cain killed his brother Abel and he too shirks his responsibility, uttering the chilling words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
How do we avoid those pitfalls? How do we embrace responsibility instead of evading it?
In South Africa, this question is particularly pressing and pertinent. The value of responsibility has the power to transform our country. A society infused with responsibility is necessarily one that embraces accountability and transparency in governance, and one that embraces a commitment to caring for one another. Through a passionate commitment to the value of responsibility at every level of society – government, community, individual – we can overcome any challenge facing our society, whether it’s crime, health, education or poverty alleviation.
The key is to start from a young age. In Jewish tradition, a child becomes an adult when they are 12 for a female or 13 for a male. In doing so, they celebrate a Bat Mitzvah (for a woman) and a Bar Mitzvah (for a man), which literally means “Daughter/Son of the Commandment”. The message is clear – at the very moment a child reaches adulthood, the age of independence and freedom, they also reach the age of duty and responsibility to God’s Commandments.
As South Africans, we, too, have come of age. We have our hard-won independence, freedom and self-respect, and with it, we need to move to responsibility. And that movement must be led by youth.
It was youth who led the way to freedom on 16 June 1976. The 20 000 schoolchildren took on the heavy mantle of adulthood – launching one of the most dramatic public attacks on the policy of apartheid. Many lost their lives on that day, immortalised by the limp body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. But these young people succeeded in unleashing a wave of change which, in time, swept away an immoral order and led us to freedom.
And now it is young people who must lead us to responsibility. It was with this in mind that, around 15 years ago, together with the then minister of education, Naledi Pandor, I drafted the “Bill of Responsibilities” on behalf of and in collaboration with the National Religious Leaders Forum and in partnership with the Department of Education. Taught in schools nationwide from grade 1 to matric as part of the Life Orientation syllabus, the objective of the Bill of Responsibilities is to charge a new generation of young South Africans with the animating force of responsibility.
The Bill of Responsibilities is the companion document to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the very bedrock of freedom and democracy in our country. It’s opening words state: “I accept the call to responsibility that comes with the many rights and freedoms that I have been privileged to inherit from the sacrifice and suffering of those who came before me.” Each clause of the Bill of Responsibilities reformulates another clause of the Bill of Rights as a duty.
The Bill of Responsibilities comprises the essential building blocks – the moral framework – for a great society. It addresses the sacredness of human life – our fundamental equality and the attendant responsibility to treat people with equal dignity; the centrality of familial obligations and duties; the importance of hard work and of contributing to society and the country at large; and many other foundational principles.
By reformulating human rights into the language of responsibility, the Bill of Responsibilities has the potential to transform and uplift the spirit of our country. With it, teachers and parents can educate a new generation to grow up feeling that the values of responsibility are normal and natural. But its impact goes beyond the classroom and the home.
The Bill of Responsibilities is about all of us. Its spirit can impact every part of society – from children through to the elderly, from citizens to government – and infuse everything we do with the moral values of our Constitution.
Through a deep engagement with its words and ideas, the great people of this country can emerge with a new spirit – a spirit of responsibility, integrity, duty and accountability; of sensitivity, compassion and respect.
Responsibility can reinvigorate our national discourse, moving us away from pessimism and negativity. Charged with responsibility, we can be re-energised and truly move this great country forward.
I would like, therefore, to issue a call for religious leaders, business leaders, government leaders and ordinary citizens who want to make a difference to come forward. Let us form an alliance, a movement for change – a national campaign around the Bill of Responsibilities that will put responsibility at the heart of our country’s ethos. Together, we can free the tremendous potential in each other and build the South Africa we dream of.