The Bill of Responsibility Can Restore Society
Updated: May 7
Human civilization is based on the value of responsibility. Without it, the very enterprise of building a great society is in danger. In Polokwane next month, the ANC will debate ideas for the future. One idea, in particular, has the potential to transform and uplift our country: a Bill of Responsibilities for our schools.
The proposed Bill of Responsibilities is based on the Bill of Rights. Our right to freedom demands that we assume the responsibility to respect the freedom of others. The right to dignity demands that we treat all human beings with dignity. Similarly, with each human right, we need to exercise responsibility and integrity. Each right has been reformulated into the language of responsibility so that we will soon have a Bill of Responsibilities as a complementary document to the Bill of Rights. The latter is obviously a legal document and the former a social and educational one. In practical terms, the plan is to make the Bill of Responsibilities a document for the schools of our country as a joint project between the Department of Education and the National Religious Leaders Forum. The goal is to have the document of the Bill of Responsibilities in every classroom across the length and breadth of our country, so that we can nurture a new generation of South Africans in the spirit of responsibility.
From the beginning of time, human beings have struggled with the notion of responsibility. The Book of Genesis describes how Adam and Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. Their immediate response was to try to hide from G-d, who calls out to Adam, “Where are you?”, meaning “What has happened to you…why have you sinned?” Adam’s response is to blame Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Both refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Responsibility means taking ownership of the consequences of one’s actions. Every action has consequences, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Responsibility is about acknowledging that these consequences are the results of our actions and that, in a sense, the consequences belong to us.
Responsibility is the logical extension of freedom. G-d has granted each one of us the freedom to choose how we live our lives. Freedom of choice means that the decisions we make are ultimately our own, albeit with various pressures brought to bear upon us. Because we are free, we must accept responsibility for what we do. Freedom is one of the foundational values of the new South Africa and, therefore, so is responsibility. No human society can function without a deeply entrenched commitment to responsibility. All of the principles of accountability, transparency, and indeed democracy itself, are held together by the binding force of responsibility.
Responsibility affects the socio-political foundations of our society, and also our personal lives. Every decision we make and every action we perform has consequences for the future. This applies to every aspect of our lives. For example, what we eat today, and whether we exercise, will have consequences for our health in the future. Responsibility is about the notion of a work ethic; working hard today has consequences for tomorrow: as the Psalmist says, “Those who sow in tears, reap with joy”. Scott Peck in his book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ regards a healthy person as someone who has the capacity to delay gratification for long term benefit.
Responsibility is also about caring for others. The Book of Genesis records that when Cain killed Abel and was confronted by G-d, he answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” But G-d responded “What have you done? The blood of your brother calls to me from the ground”. Cain tried to shirk responsibility for the consequence of his act of murder. Those who cannot accept responsibility for their own acts also cannot embrace care and responsibility for others. Cain’s philosophy of ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is the philosophy of those who turn their back on responsibility, and it is a philosophy that undermines the foundations of human civilization. As human beings we must care for one another. Responsibility is about being our brother’s keeper.
The single most important value for transforming our beloved country into a great one is that of responsibility. The value of responsibility has the capacity to transform every dimension of our lives both on a societal as well as an individual level. A society infused with responsibility is necessarily one that embraces accountability and transparency in governance, and one that embraces commitment to and caring for ourselves and others. Through a passionate commitment to the value of responsibility we can overcome any challenge facing our society, whether in crime, health, education, or poverty alleviation.
It follows that, the initiative for a Bill of Responsibilities is of vital importance to the very future of our country. This project will be launched early in 2008 and has the exciting potential of transforming and uplifting South African society. It is significant that this revolution in the moral regeneration of our country will begin with the youth. In Jewish tradition, when a child becomes an adult, they celebrate a Bar Mitzvah (for a man) and a Bat Mitzvah (for a woman), which means a son or daughter of the Commandment. And so as they reach adulthood, which is the age both of independence and of freedom, they assume responsibility. Our New South Africa has achieved independence and freedom and now we need to advance to the next critical stage, that of the universal acceptance of the value of responsibility. That transition must be led by the young who must rise to the difficult challenge of demonstrating that they are dedicated to the greater good of society. They need to look for what they can do for our country, rather than what our country can do for them. On 16 June 1976, the children of Soweto led a revolution and in fact assumed the heavy mantle of adulthood, entailing the danger-filled weighty responsibility of launching one of the first, and most dramatic, public attacks on the policy of Apartheid. They succeeded in unleashing a wave of change which, within a relatively short time, swept away an immoral order, and led to our free new South Africa. We need to recreate the spirit of that momentous struggle as we embark on a new era of responsibility.
Ultimately, responsibility is about empowerment. People who take responsibility for their actions are also people who take responsibility for their lives. Our greatest asset in South Africa is our people. We are a nation of heroes, capable of greatness, having demonstrated repeatedly our capacity, with G-d’s help, to overcome daunting challenges. A spirit of responsibility in our country will help to unleash the energy, creativity and generosity of the South African People. For all these reasons our democracy needs to be underpinned by a Bill of Responsibilities which articulates clearly and inspiringly each of the responsibilities corresponding to each of our hard-won and precious constitutional rights.
Originally published in the Mail and Guardian