The keynote address to a Human Rights Dialogue held by the Minerals Council South Africa, with Anglo American and Global Compact Network South Africa, on on 17th March 2022, ahead of South Africa’s Human Rights Day:
Good morning to you all. Thanks for being part of this event. You all have busy lives and work schedules, and your time is appreciated.
Thank you in particular for joining this workshop on human rights. But you may well ask, what has a religious leader got to say about human rights? Sure you should be hearing from a lawyer or a legal philosopher? My answer is straightforward: respect for human rights is as central to religious faith as it is to any part of life. Our late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu used to put it this way: whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Jew or a Buddhist, not one of these faiths has a low doctrine of human beings. And if you are a person of no faith, you almost inevitably follow what they called the Golden Rule: that you should treat other people as you wish to be treated.
It is therefore intrinsic to being human that our human rights should be respected. Some say that along with human rights also go human responsibilities. That’s correct, but I think it’s better expressed by saying simply that as well as having our rights respected, we should respect the human rights of others. In the old saying, my right to swing my arm ends just short of your nose. So whether we are in mining, in other industries, in business, in faith, in politics, or life in general, it is fitting that ahead of Human Rights Day on Monday, we should need a focus and a dialogue on human rights.
Human rights are often spoken about in terms of laws and policies. But I am not here to speak to these technical details, on policies or agreements or frameworks. These are not my areas. I do want to speak to you today though on the underlying meaning of and need for protection of human rights, on the essence and intention of ensuring human rights for all, and on how we might, through our work here today and every day, build a world in which all people have access to these rights, which we enshrine in the South African Constitution (and many constitutions around the world) but which ought to go beyond legal compliance.
Your attendance, your willingness to engage on these topics, already shows a commitment to these rights, which is to be applauded. I have a particular interest in the mining industry: my father housed and fed us by buying clothing on credit from a factory shop in Johannesburg called Kitty Kit Hawkers’ Factory Supplies, then travelling to the mining compounds of what used to be called the Western Transvaal and selling them to the mine workers. Later as a psychologist I had the gruelling task of being a psychologist to workers whose lives were ruined after their spinal cords had been crushed in underground collapses.
All moral codes (and the enshrinement of human rights is based on a moral code) poses two elements: a set of values to pursue, and a reason for pursuing those values. I want to talk about our reasons for ensuring that our organisations, and we ourselves, uphold and actively embed the realisation of human rights as one of our highest values.
When we begin to think about human rights, we might begin by thinking about slavery, indentured labour, abuses of power through genocide, torture, arbitrary arrest. We might think about capital punishment, or human trafficking. But I hope we also think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins by declaring that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, and about how beautiful an objective that is, and how far we fall from it.
Some years ago, I asked the participants at Courageous Conversations, which some of you here today will have been a part of or heard of, to reflect on the following question. The question was: “What society would I want to live in if the vagaries of my birth were not a factor? What would the common good look like so that regardless of birth or heritage I could live a full and fair life”.
I want to read one of the responses I received to that question:
“I would like to live in a society,” the writer said, “that meets both my material needs (food, health, safety, shelter, education etc.) and my non-material needs (to be respected, live with dignity, to have choice/agency, be granted moral worth, spirituality, personal growth etc.).”
Is this not what we are talking about when we talk about human rights?
If I was a child, or aged or infirm, I would rely on others to provide for these needs. But as a healthy adult I would want to be enabled to meet them for myself and my family. I don’t want to be given them on a plate – that denies us the opportunity for choice and is ultimately isolated dis-empowering.
The way material goods and non-material values are created or emerge is through a network of relationships and obligations that make up a functional society. We live, as Archbishop Tutu said, in a delicate network of interdependence, each of us dependent on the other. Linked to this is the concept of who forms part of society – by which I mean who in our societies are accorded moral value and worth. Whose needs, wants and values do we take seriously?
Dysfunctional and conflict-ridden communities don’t give moral weight to “the other” – they care only about people they see “as like me”. This leads to relationships with “the other” that are at best transactional and at worst exploitative and destructive. So if you don’t know what your own attributes, abilities or situation will be, it makes sense to conceive of society that delivers for everyone within it and not just a lucky few.
In summary I would want to live in a society that meets my material and non-material needs through a system of relationships that acknowledges and respects the obligations, rights, and moral value of everyone in that society.
In South Africa we know only too well how strongly the vagaries of your birth can impact your rights, your access to clean water and sanitation, to education, to opportunity, in short your access to a meaningful and vibrant existence. I want to believe that we in South Africa today, in the here and now, have an opportunity, a very difficult opportunity but one nonetheless, to be one of the first countries in the world to undo the harm of structural inequality.
You may think I am overly idealistic. But think of Isaiah, the prophet in the Christian Old Testament or the Jewish Torah. In his time, Isaiah saw the deep decline of positive moral values in the national consciousness, deliberately obscured by ruling elites for their own self-interest. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Responding to this situation, Isaiah said, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (1:17)
He called on people of faith, and we can and must call on all people regardless of faith, to do good, to seek justice, to correct oppression. As South Africans, we must remember our reasons for pursuing our values, and as Isaiah called on people to remember that calling, so must we remember it, and we must make that memory our contribution to the future.
The seed of change, the mustard seed as the scripture has it, lies in the margins. It lies in the small actions, the purposeful actions, the actions driven by an honest intention to create a fairer and more just society for all. Consider the words of Robert Kennedy in his famous 1966 speech in Cape Town:
“Each time a man [and now we would also say a woman] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
The most marginalised among us, which in South Africa almost uniquely in the modern world are also the greatest number, may not feel that they have a seat at the table, or hold the pen of their own narrative, but they hold the key to South Africa’s future or failure.
And this brings us back to what I said earlier – All moral codes have a set of values, and a reason for pursuing those values.
We experience in South Africa a long legacy of one of the greatest structural imbalances of power in the modern world. We face this legacy each day, whether we notice it or not. And I would guess mostly not, because we have normalised it in our daily lives. We have arrived at a place where the rampant inequality and injustice of the vagaries of our birth are so deeply embedded in our national psyche, that we may not be able to see a path forward.
The psychologist Martin Seligman did research and talks about the concept of Learned Helplessness. He and others ran experiments where, when the ability to effect change on something discomforting was taken away, then people did not try to effect change in other bad situations. They learned, and they were taught, that nothing they did could change their circumstances, and so they did nothing. I often wonder to what degree we as a nation are suffering under this learned helplessness, that we have learned over the centuries, and parts of our country have had forced upon them.
The good news though is that Seligman also proved that just as we can learn helplessness, so we can unlearn it. We can learn, quite quickly once we see positive change through our actions, that we can continue to effect positive change, become more resilient, and more optimistic.
And so I ask you today, those of you here in positions of power and privilege and responsibility, to reflect on how you can use that position to help our country to unlearn helplessness, to see positive outcomes for positive actions, and thereby for all of us to recognise our own humanity and our human rights.
I want to end with a brief poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, one which I hope you will take with you as you continue this important and powerful work:
“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost it’s way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.
Where the mind is led forward by thee
into ever widening thought and action.
In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake” — Rabindranath Tagore
May you be blessed and kept, and carry into the world your own goodness.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba