Chance for ANC to commit itself to public discussion

John Pampallis, Business Day, 17 March 2008

The proposed national school pledge released by Education Minister Naledi Pandor for comment provides an opportunity to open an important public debate.

Pandor clearly feels the pledge could contribute to strengthening our national constitutional values if it is part of a larger educational programme such as that contained in our school curriculum.

Opposition to the pledge has fallen into two main categories: opposition to its specific wording and opposition to the idea of a pledge itself.

There is a tendency by those on the political left as well as by many liberals to reject pledges of allegiance. Such pledges, especially when their recitation is compulsory for children of impressionable age, are often associated with indoctrination and encouraging nationalist causes.

Nationalism is generally an exclusionary ideology in that it exalts the importance of one national group over others. In other words, it builds an “us and them” ideology. So the first impulse of those with a more inclusive and egalitarian outlook is to resist such practices.

The wording of the proposed pledge, however, undercuts criticisms of this kind.

Most South Africans would not find it nationalistic or exclusionary in any way. In my view, it is inclusive and affirms the basic principles of human dignity, human rights and justice.

Opposition to the wording of the pledge has, ironically, come from the white political right, who feel excluded by its reference to “the injustices of our past” and the undertaking to “honour those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom”. They have indicated that they (or their forebears) are being blamed and made to appear as villains.

While it is difficult to understand such an objection unless the person making it still identifies with the system of apartheid and racial oppression, perhaps it is unsurprising that some people still feel this way. The old SA has not yet receded into a distant past.

Opposition to the idea of a pledge has been largely aimed at the daily, rote repetition of a pledge which, it is said, becomes meaningless and mindless and does not help to insti l the values it espouses. In other words, it is felt that any such usage defeats the pledge’s own purpose of building commitment to certain ideals.

In this regard, it might be of some interest that the issue of overuse of symbols arose when I taught at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, an African National Congress (ANC) school for young exiles in Tanzania in the 1980s. When the school opened, we used to start every morning with an assembly at which we sang the national anthem (Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika). When the then ANC President, Oliver Tambo, visited the school, I remember that he was uncomfortable about this practice. While he obviously supported the singing of the anthem, he felt that singing it so frequently cheapened it. His counsel was that the anthem should be sung only once a week at school assemblies and on special occasions. The school followed his advice.

A national pledge of the kind proposed — whether recited daily or weekly — would inevitably become an important national symbol, almost on a par with our flag and our national anthem.

Whatever its merits it should not be imposed with only a brief debate. It is easy to dismiss arguments by those who we may consider reactionary or lacking in any remorse for the apartheid past. But perhaps it would be better to engage them in a rational discussion before dismissing their concerns. After all, they too are part of the nation that we wish to build.

Only 30 days have been allowed for public comment and the government does not appear to be taking any measures to ensure widespread participation in a debate on the issue. What’s the hurry? Surely no great harm will result if we wait another few months or even a year before deciding on a pledge.

The proposed pledge is a good starting point, but it should be just that: a starting point. It should be debated in every school (or at least in every secondary school), in political, civic and community organisations, trade unions, churches, municipalities and legislatures. People should be asked if they think that SA should introduce a pledge at all and, if so, what their views are of its contents.

And perhaps we should also consider whether a pledge should be only for children or whether it should have more widespread applicability — for example, to be recited by public representatives at the opening of legislatures or by immigrants when they take on South African citizenship.

Submissions made by organisations and individuals should be considered seriously by a nonpartisan committee. If there is general approval for the concept of a pledge, the text should be redrafted to take into account people’s views and concerns. Perhaps we should even consider submitting it to Parliament for final debate and approval.

The ANC and its allies have organised such public discussion before, under much more difficult circumstances. It was the widespread participation in the creation of the Freedom Charter in 1955 which gave it its legitimacy and overwhelming support among those who fought apartheid. The ANC should rediscover its grassroots traditions and invite other South Africans to share in them.

  • Pampallis is director of the Centre for Education Policy Development


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