Leadership and Human Rights

Updated: May 7

An extract of a speech delivered at the Chief Rabbi’s Enriching Tomorrow Forum which was also addressed by Dr Mamphela Ramphele, on the topic of ‘Leadership and Human Rights – Essential Foundations for Democracy’, during July 2008


We are at a crossroads in South Africa, facing enormous challenges and because of this, we need to re-examine our philosophy of leadership and government.


The Talmud says: “Pray for the welfare of the government because were it not for the fear and respect of government, one man would swallow his neighbour alive.” Anarchy and violence simmer beneath the surface of any human society. It is government’s responsibility to restrain these forces of chaos. At first glance this is a pessimistic interpretation of human affairs. On a deeper level, the message is one of hope because it means that if government fulfils its responsibilities society can live in peace. This is a message of hope for us in South Africa. Crime can be beaten. Crime levels in our country do not mean that we are a sick or abnormal society. They mean that our society is not governed properly. Crime is what happens when “the centre cannot hold”. As the Yeats poem in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart states: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Strong, efficient leadership in government is required to hold back the forces of violent anarchy. We also need a compassionate government that is moved into urgent action at the plight of human suffering, in all areas but especially when it comes to poverty, disease and lack of education. Compassionate government is based on the Talmudic principle that to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world and to save one life is to save an entire world. It is the realisation that if human beings are suffering, we have to move heaven and earth to prevent that suffering. Every single person who suffers from disease or poverty is a national tragedy. The country recently came to a standstill when over 60 people were murdered in the course of Xenophobic attacks. It was a terrible human tragedy where tens of thousands were also displaced. As the Talmud teaches us: to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world. Considering that, what about the 50 people who are murdered every single day in South Africa? Home and business robberies are up, according to the latest crime statistics. Why does society tend towards disintegration and chaos? One of the great Jewish 16th century philosophers known as the Maharal of Prague explains that G-d has, through our souls, imbued each one of us with a spirit of independence and a spirit of sovereignty. We naturally resist authority and clash with other people because each one of us is like an independent sovereign, created with inherent greatness that comes from our Divine souls. And that is where leadership comes in. It comes to unify and bring a society of sovereign souls together, but to do so in a way that respects people and understands that society is difficult to govern and that we don’t have right to rule over them. The Talmud says that leadership is about service and not power. Government is there to serve the people. No human being has the right to rule over another human being because we are all sovereign.


Therefore, our political system must be people-focused. It must serve the people and not the power of leaders. The system of proportional representation does not work because it empowers parties, not people. We should have members of parliament with constituencies. We should directly elect mayors, premiers and presidents because then we would have real power. Then, we could phone our MP and say, well what’s going on in my constituency and what’s the problem with this and what’s the issue with that? Proportional representation means that the party is in control, not the people. It also doesn’t bring out independent thinking. For example, you have got John McCain who is running for the presidency. He is not a party man. He actually differs from the Republican Party, his own party, on many key issues. He is a maverick. He is an independent spirit. In proportional representation it is hard to find an independent spirit because he has to tow the line of the party bosses. It should not be like that. The party should not be in control of the government. The people should be in control of the government. We should have the final role and the final say.


We are the ones who should really say that you owe your position to us and you are there to serve us. We have to restructure our government and by restructuring it, we will produce far better results because everything is systemic. So when we are talking about an understanding of society in which you have got all these free spirits roaming around and you need to find leadership that is going to bring it all together, you need a strong, compassionate leadership but a leadership which empowers people.


Appreciating the potential greatness of every human being influences the philosophy of government. We need to create an environment in which the human spirit can flourish. This is true on a physical, social and moral level. On a physical level as a society, we create the physical infrastructure to protect and enhance human life through providing appropriate housing, sanitation, health care and all the other things that are vital to help human beings survive and thrive within the natural environment, which is by definition hostile to human habitation.


Together with the physical infrastructure the enterprise of human civilisation is called upon to create the social and moral infrastructure within which the human spirit can flourish. The social infrastructure is built through a just legal system, which is founded on human rights and is fairly and efficiently applied and enforced. Building the moral infrastructure is done through nurturing a culture of moral responsibility for the dignity, welfare and other rights of all human beings. It is done by instilling an appreciation for the notion of service, integrity and accountability.


Every single one of us has a soul from G-d that can achieve the ultimate, but we need to nurture that soul. And we nurture that soul by giving it a roof over its head, educating it and raising it in a loving family. We nurture that soul by ensuring that it’s not subjected to violence and disease. And then when it’s got that space, the human soul will take off and achieve the most incredible greatness that G-d knows each one of us is capable of. The ultimate test for everything that government does should be: is this facilitating the greatness of the human spirit or not?


We need a strong compassionate government delivering efficient services and empowering people, creating space for the human spirit to flourish, nurturing a country full of great people who conduct their lives with dignity, determination and faith.

#SouthAfrica

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