The penalties of idealism

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
Lawrence Schlemmer reflects on the rights of those who favour devotional worship in public schools.

Conservative and religious parents are the latest victims of Kader Asmal’s good intentions. The minister’s plan to replace the current form of religious instruction in schools with doctrinally neutral instruction in all major religions has caused dismay among brown and white conservative Afrikaans-speaking communities. These same communities are probably equally appalled by the public broadcaster’s intention to re-orientate the Afrikaans channel Radio Sonder Grense on the grounds that it is ‘outmoded’ and ‘preachy’ (despite the fact that RSG is about twice as popular as the English channel SAFM). At the same time, Afrikaans schools are being squeezed out of existence in the name of greater access for all learners. Many people, including opinion leaders of the trendy cosmopolitan type, see this as an inevitable sacrifice to transformation. But they are missing the bigger issue, which was voiced by former conservative MP Cassie Aucamp: ‘Children at school are being treated as if they are possessions of the state.’ When the government, in its zeal to transform, decides that people’s values and religious practices are not in their best interests, we are well on the way to destroying freedom in the name of democracy.

"Politics is the science of the second best" (Robert Morley, 1964). This quotation belongs on the desk of every super idealistic cabinet minister in the world, including some of our own like Kader Asmal. The latest victims of his good intentions are conservative and religiously inclined parents.

The problems of conservative brown and white Afrikaans-speakers in South Africa today are perhaps the un-sexiest and least politically captivating or correct issues in these times of transformation. But liberal democrats should spare more than a passing glance at them because they are giving the game away in some key areas of our politics.

Mounting dismay has been voiced at minister Kader Asmal's proposal that religious instruction as currently practised in public schools be prohibited and replaced by doctrinally neutral instruction on all major religions, suspended belatedly under pressure from churches in late May. Large sections of the Afrikaans-speaking community are probably equally appalled by the apparent intention of the public broadcaster to re-orientate the Afrikaans channel Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), and in the process not to renew the contracts of at least two "old guard" presenters. It would seem that Australian consultants had undertaken the grand total of 12 Focus Group discussions and six depth interviews that "showed " that RSG is "outmoded" and "preachy", which is not what they or the SABC feel that it should be. This is curious in the light of the fact that RSG is around twice as popular as the very contemporary English channel SAFM. Besides which, many listeners, faced with the hazards of drugs, HIV, rape and criminal violence, would probably like more rather than less "preaching".

Other no doubt well-intentioned policies are having the effect of squeezing dominantly Afrikaans schools out of existence in the name of greater access for all learners. Many people see all this as an inevitable sacrifice to transformation, an attitude that is not limited to the ANC. It is found among many other opinion leaders, including people who are very easily mistaken for liberals - trendy upper middle class people of the super contemporary, secular and cosmopolitan variety.

But what they are missing is an issue far bigger than old-fashioned moral and ethnic sensitivities. Former conservative MP Cassie Aucamp raised it in parliament with these words, quoted in television news: "Children at school are being treated as if they are possessions of the state". When the zeal to transform extends to deciding, for the people, that certain lifestyles, religious practices, values and cultural rights are not in their best interests, we are well on the way to destroying freedom in the name of democracy.

All liberal democrats should read Fareed Zakaria's new book The Future of Freedom (Norton 2003). He outlines masterfully how representative democracy throughout the world is being used as a screen behind which illiberal agendas are being imposed, gradually destroying more and more of the freedoms and principles on which democracy was originally based. In the absence of effective checks and balances in the exercise of power (as in South Africa), he pleads for depoliticising the major questions in society and having impartial professional commissions prepare policies for elected politicians to approve or reject - in effect a role similar to that of Central Banks extended into a wider field.

Applied, for example, to the issue of religious instruction in schools, this approach would respect the strong and sincere feelings of parents, the fact that for most religious adherents "neutrality" is tantamount to heresy but also the need for fairness for all persuasions. The result would destroy no freedom but would guide schools in the management of religious diversity.

This is in fact what minister Asmal should have done, but it is not the stuff of which South Africa's latter day idealism is made. We should all consider that if the government thinks that it "owns" schools and schoolchildren, it also thinks that it owns all of us. Both liberty and hegemony are indivisible.