During his visit (21 to 23 July 2011) to South Africa and the Nelson Mandela Foundation to give the 9th Annual Lecture (23 July), Professor Ismail Serageldin addressed a wide range of issues about how society might organise itself to ensure that dignity and justice was more universally shared among people.
His visit came at a time of great uncertainty. At a time when the world is plagued by mis-governance, by concerns about energy and climate, by multi-dip recession as well as by persistently high levels of inequality and poverty. It is a time when many feel the world has lost its way and that new directions are needed to ensure progress towards a better, more sustainable and just world.
To address these, Serageldin favours a return to values. He recommends this not as an anodyne response to the challenges; he adds substance and meaning by referencing values to ‘higher purpose’ and by providing examples of possible strategic shifts. He punts notions such as democracy, justice and fairness as well as respect for diversity. In his application of democracy, he agitates for wide citizen participation; he also calls for majority decisionmaking to be preceded by debate and careful listening to the views and perspectives of minorities. His views on justice lead to trenchant critique of the dominant (free market) economic model. He says fairness in terms of opportunity (equal opportunity, so to speak) is insufficient; attention has to be given to equitable outcomes as well. In valuing diversity, Serageldin notes that all nations are becoming “rainbow nations” and should deal with this reality positively by embracing diversity. He invokes the notion of cosmopolitanism. He waxes nostalgic when he refers to Alexandria in the 19th century when cosmopolitanism reigned supreme and Greeks, Syrians, Italians, French, British, Armenians, Turks and Arabs shared an Egyptian identity.
More in an interview than the lecture, Serageldin applied his views regarding justice to the economy and economic issues. He expressed concern about a situation of too little regulation in a context of monopoly capital. Even though he cautions against overzealous regulation that could stifle entrepreneurialism, he argues that the global economic malaise calls for a restating of the “central” role of the state. In his lecture, he noted that a good social system would balance a system of reward and profits ('equality of opportunity') with one of basic rights (some equality of outcome). Seemingly addressing himself directly to the capitalists, he states that excessive inequality is inefficient and corrosive, and ultimately leads to “class war”.
Serageldin, in the lecture per se, delivered at the Linder Auditorium in Johannesburg, underlined the importance of social cohesion. He cautions, as far as trends go, that in certain cases the pull is as strong in the opposite direction. In this regard, he refers to the splitting up of Czechoslovakia to accommodate the aspirations of Czechs and Slovaks. In his view, social cohesion refers to the interconnectivity between human beings. This may of course be taken further, especially in our situation, where we may gain if the interpretation of social cohesion is closely aligned to social capital. In such an interpretation, the bonds between people are harnessed to maximise strategies and efforts for addressing social problems.
Serageldin ended his lecture on a rousing note, extolling the role of youth in social change. Pointing to the decisive role of youth in the Arab Spring as well as in the use of technology to connect and access information, he lauds youth as a social grouping and looks to it as a key to a positively transformed future. He calls on youth to continue to play a key role in creating a so-called “new country” based on justice and social cohesion.
The professor’s speech has many points of application for South Africa. South Africa is renowned for promoting the rainbow nation idea and for getting diverse groups to accept a shared political settlement, but the society remains fractured along racial and other lines. Much work needs to be done, not just to ensure that a warm fuzzy feeling is sustained, but in terms of getting people to deploy connectivity and joint action on issues that matter. The government, through the Department of Arts and Culture, has prioritised a programme of social cohesion. It has launched a campaign called 'South African @ Heart: Working together to build a Caring Nation'.
Issues of the economy are also pertinent. At present various social forces, including key national organisations of the youth and workers, are calling for fundamental changes in the economic system so that inequality is reduced and for systems & processes that reproduce marginalisation to be dismantled. There are also calls – in South Africa and globally – for greater accountability in business for excess, for damage to the environment, for factors that perpetuate social exclusion, for corruption and for reckless actions that damage entire economies.
Serageldin’s points about ‘participation’ as a way of deepening democracy also resonate. South Africa has been through a period in which the formal mechanisms of democracy have been prioritised. However, alongside this (necessary) consolidation, we have seen growing evidence of pockets of popular disenchantment that accompanied by feelings of marginalisation and disempowerment. Our society can only move forward if we encourage, nurture and support additional means of civic participation. Indications are South Africa as a country needs to support, endorse and value the existence of vibrant forums, associations and organisations – ones in which citizens make their voices heard to a greater degree. This is critical if South Africa is to move forward to greater achievements and to more effectively dealing with challenges such as poverty, inequality, joblessness and crime.