Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s recent statement about a white wealth tax has evoked much discussion in the media. His comments were part of a speech he gave at the launching of a book entitled The Humanist Imperative in South Africa, the culmination of a two year long research project based at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). What Tutu said about a wealth tax, as well as his challenge to government leaders to scale back on the amount spent on their luxury official cars, was a thoughtful response to a major theme in the book. His comments came at the end of a speech in which he had stressed the need for us to recover that sense of human solidarity that was at the heart of the struggle against apartheid. Human solidarity in the struggle for justice, he insisted, is of the essence of a genuine humanism, it is this which gave rise to our new constitutional democracy, and it is our failure to achieve economic justice that threatens it.
The Humanist Imperative was an outcome of the New Humanist Project which involved thirty-nine academics and public leaders from a range of backgrounds and disciplines in discussions over two years. Its aim was to examine the current state of the nation in terms of its humanist foundations. While humanism is generally associated with the liberal secular tradition that grew out of the European Enlightenment, it has a more complex history in Africa, some of it liberal, some socialist; some secular, some religious. But the underlying thrust of humanism remains: the affirmation of human freedom, rights, responsibilities, dignity, and economic justice.
The anti-colonial struggle for independence in Africa, as many distinguished African leaders claimed, was a humanist project; so, too, the struggle against apartheid was humanist at its core. Thus the eventual outcome, our remarkable Constitution is humanist through and through, but in its own way. It is neither narrow in its formulations or focus, but embodies the insights of all those humanisms that contributed to overcoming apartheid and laying the foundations for the new South Africa. As such it strongly affirms our common humanity irrespective of race, gender or sexual orientation, while at the same time respecting our differences as contributing to the enrichment of our common life. It is a unique document amongst national Constitutions, an inclusive humanist manifesto that calls for an “open society in which government is based on the will of the people;” a society in which “every citizen is equally protected by law;” and, significantly, a society which seeks to “improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.” This is the “new humanism” we are called to affirm, protect and embody.
This new South African humanist project is currently under threat from various directions. The litany of these threats needs little repeating here: racism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia are words that immediately come to mind. But the most challenging of all is the growing gap between the rich and the poor, for this fundamentally betrays our common humanity and undermines our commitment to improve the quality of life of all citizens. This was a key concern of the New Humanist Project, it is reflected throughout the essays in The Humanist Imperative, and it was rightly highlighted by Archbishop Tutu in concluding his launching speech.
Wealth originally meant human well-being, and commonwealth meant the well-being of society as a whole. To regain this humanist understanding of society there has to be a decisive shift in the dominant value system currently shaping our democracy. This was forcefully stated by Neville Alexander, one of the contributors to the book: “in order for a new humanism to become feasible, we have to find the vehicles that will enable our new South Africa to free itself from the trap of self-seeking individualism and status-seeking as well as power-hugging accumulation of material goods.” Whether or not Tutu’s challenge is taken up in precisely the way he expressed it, we simply have to find ways to become a common-wealth for everybody’s sake. At the very least, the Archbishop’s remarks should goad us into further discussion, perhaps within the context of an economic Codesa, but even more to some practical responses that will indicate that we are serious about the well-being of our society.
* Article published in City Press, 28 August 2011 and used here with permission from the author