Dr Badat on inedequate citizenship

This is an edited extract of the speech made by Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat at the universities 2014 graduation ceremonies.


During the past eight years I have used my graduation addresses to share ideas on critical issues related to our society. This evening, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of our democracy, I wish to reflect on the progress that we have made with respect to citizenship in post-1994 South Africa.

1994 was a revolutionary breakthrough. From being a racially exclusive authoritarian society in which millions were downtrodden subjects, we became a democracy in which for the first time almost all inhabitants became citizens.

Critical here was a commendable Constitution, including a Bill of Rights, which held out the promise of an extensive range of human, social and economic rights that did not exist for all or at all prior to 1994.

As a society, as social groups and as individuals we, and especially black South Africans, made a significant transition and advance in 1994 from subject-hood and being ‘subjects’ in the land of our birth to becoming ‘citizens’.

During the past 20 years there have been significant economic and social gains and achievements. At the same time, there continue to be many challenges, and key institutions of our democracy have come under strain as a result of too many in power seeking to use the state as their private piggy bank.

Still, a relatively independent judiciary, free media, autonomous universities and the like remain intact. Witness in this regard the magnificent performance of the Public Protector’s office under Thuli Madonsela.

However, a number of contemporary realities, compromise the ideal of full and substantive citizenship rights for all that the Constitution promises. Indeed, they condemn large numbers of people to conditions that are associated with subjecthood and being subjects.

First, we have the dubious honour of being the most unequal society on earth. During the past 20 years income inequality has increased; the richest 20% have increased their share of income while the share of income of the poorest 20% has fallen. This poorest 20% receive a measly 2.7% of national income and obtain 55% of their income through social grants. The top 10% take home 52% of national income.

The consequences of the inherited and new divides of ‘race’, class, gender and geography are all too evident. Hunger, poverty and unemployment blight our democracy. Millions of citizens are mired in desperate daily routines of survival while, alongside, thievery, unbridled accumulation and crass materialism run rampant.

It has to be posed: What does citizenship mean for those who are poor, unemployed and struggle to eke out a living in South Africa?

Second, patriarchy and sexism continue to stifle girls and women realizing their potential and the contribution they can make to society and development. Gender violence is a pervasive, morbid ill that that destroys innumerable lives through the rape and abuse of women, and the so-called ‘corrective’ rape of gay and lesbian people.

To what extent are women and members of our LGBTi community able to lead secure lives and fully realize the promised fruits of citizenship that our Constitution proclaims?

Third, large parts of our schooling system continue to evince problems that compromise the provision of high quality education to children and youth and thwart them from fulfilling their potential.

Despite almost universal formal participation in schooling, our schools have significant problems related to drop-outs, retention, progression and successful completion. ‘The simple reality is that enrolment is not the same as attendance and attendance does not imply learning’.

2.8 million or over 40% of people between the ages of 18-24 are neither in education or training, nor in employment. This is not only ‘an educational problem, but constitutes a social and economic disaster’.

Education is intimately connected to the idea of democratic citizenship, and to the cultivation of our common humanity. It facilitates the defence, assertion and pursuit of citizen and human rights and active democratic participation.

Yet, our schools by and large fail to develop the critical capacities that are essential for functioning as democratic citizens, not to mention the basic literacies that citizens require to function effectively in a complex and changing society.

What are the consequences of the educational failures of our schooling for millions of South Africans? What does this mean for the kind and quality of citizenship that can be exercised by those that have been and are being failed by our schools?

It must also be asked whether our universities contribute adequately to forging critical and democratic citizenship through our social purposes of producing knowledge and cultivating competent graduates. Do we produce graduates who are not only capable professionals, but also “critical, creative and compassionate” citizens”? Do we engage with our society in a way that contributes to the intellectual and cultural development of a critical citizenry?

Fourth, we must keep a vigilant eye on those in our country who make ‘recourse to rousing affirmations of identity and entitlement’ and promote populist discourses of ‘authenticity’ – who claim to know ‘who is a real South African, who is a real African, who is black, what is a man, (and) what is the role of women’in society.

Those who for self-serving reasons stridently give ever more ‘narrow and exacting’ answers to these questions and spread parochial and dubious views on culture and tradition could unleash dangerous developments and reduce millions to subjecthood.

We must of course energetically undo the huge social inequalities that were bequeathed to us by apartheid. But we must also be acutely aware that using ‘race’ to advance redress and social equity could dangerously ossify racial categorisations and continue to construct identities primarily along the lines of ‘race’.

Our strategies must erode and dissolve racial thinking and categories and permit rich, multiple, fluid and dynamic identities to emerge rather than ones frozen along ‘race’ lines. We should never lose sight that the fundamental goals are to build a genuinely non-racial and non-sexist society in which all can flower.

Finally, there is a tendency to silence critics of government and the state by questioning their credentials to speak publicly and their record of anti-apartheid ‘struggle’.

The view that we must satisfy certain conditions before we can express our views as citizens, or that we can only critique if we participated in the anti-apartheid struggle is both wrong and dangerous.

It effectively turns millions of citizens, including all those born after 1994, into subjects, and makes a mockery of our Constitution. It is our constitutional right as citizens to freely express our views and to critique.

Indeed, it is our obligation to ‘speak truth to power’, when those who wield economic and political power have to be reminded of their responsibilities and be rebuked for their looting of public resources and unethical and immoral conduct.

In drawing attention to entrenched poverty and inequality, and the limited economic and social rights and opportunities enjoyed by millions of South African citizens, I do not at all question the value of being a citizen or citizenship rights. Citizenship for all in South Africa was a huge achievement and a significant gift of our realization of democracy.

What I do wish, in the 20th year of our democracy, is to draw attention to the distance we have yet to travel to make citizenship count for all South Africans. I also wish to caution against narrow and limited notions of citizenship that reduce it purely to its formal, legal and political dimensions.

We need to embrace an expansive and multi-faceted notion of citizenship that encompasses wider economic and social dimensions. This is the only basis on which we can ensure that all South Africans lead rich, rewarding, productive and secure lives.

In the final chapter of Long Walk to Freedom, Tatamkhulu Nelson Mandela writes

The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

‘The truth’ on the eve of the 20th anniversary of our democracy is that:

    • We are citizens, but our citizenship is as yet inadequately developed and we are yet to ‘live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’.
    • ‘Our devotion’ in practice to an extensive and multi-faceted conception of citizenship is debatable and has to be struggled for and still won.
    • The idea that ‘with freedom (and citizenship) comes responsibilities’ has all too quickly been forgotten in many quarters in South Africa.

Despite the challenges, we must avoid despair. Madiba writes, ‘there were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.’ We must remain optimistic and, as Madiba urged, we must keep our ‘head pointed toward the sun, and (our) feet moving forward.’

Next month, on May 7th we have an important opportunity to exercise our citizenship and shape the destiny of our country. Use this opportunity and all possible opportunities so that together we can realize the South Africa of our Constitutional ideals.

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