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SA youth disillusioned with democracy – Thuli Madonsela

Prof Thuli Madonsela

Delivering the 2018 Unisa Founders Lecture, themed ‘Ethics in democracy’, Prof Thuli Madonsela warned that especially young people in South Africa have come to take a dim view of democracy ‘They say that their parents fought for freedom; instead they got democracy,’ she said.

Taking place on 23 August, the Founders Lecture once again afforded Unisa, who is celebrating its 145th year as a beacon of hope in South Africa, the continent and, indeed, the world, an opportunity to facilitate intellectual engagement on issues of importance to its stakeholder groups. Said Prof Mandla Makhanya, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, in his welcoming address: ‘In the higher education sector which offers few certainties, this evening’s lecture will assist us in moving forward to the level and also quality of intellectual engagement that produces results.’

Prof Madonsela, the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice and Law Professor at the University of Stellenbosch, rose to national prominence during her seven-year term as public protector. Her experiences and actions during her term in office leave her more qualified than most to comment on the state of democracy and ethics in government in South Africa.

Democracy has an understated power

Madonsela welcomed the opportunity to engage with an audience on the topic under discussion. ‘We underestimate the power of dialogue,’ she said. ‘Yet it is like water, which shifts things imperceptibly. A dialogue about democracy and ethics is very timely, not just in the South African context, but for the entire world given the fact that we live in a very fractured international society. Everyone is pointing fingers at someone else. An opportunity like the Founders Lecture allows all of us to reflect not on who is doing what wrong, but more on what universities can do as centres of excellence, as crucibles of thoughts.’

Madonsela said that we’ve come to think that politics makes it difficult for ethics to be a way of life. ‘If we take the view that power corrupts, it automatically precludes the possibility of ethics in the political part of democracy,’ she said. ‘Yet there are instances of incorruptible politicians. A case in point is the first prime minister of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, who had absolute power yet was incorruptible.’

‘I would prefer to speak this evening about the ethics of democracy rather than ethics in democracy,’ said Madonsela, ‘the latter being the stated theme of this lecture. Contrary to the common understanding of the meaning of ethics, it is not confined to moral principles. It goes beyond this to acceptable beliefs and behavior. We’ve tended to politicize the moral regeneration process since it was a government-sponsored movement. It was therefore not aligned to moral leadership.’

Prof Mandla Makhanya

The Constitution is a moral compass

Madonsela explained that a central question of great importance is what the source of ethics is. ‘Where do we get the authority to say that something is right or wrong?’ she asked. ‘Another question linked to the source is what happens when there is an ethical dilemma or values dissonance. My answer to ethics in South Africa’s democracy is that we have a constitution. It is so exhaustive in defining the country of our dreams that virtually everything is covered. The founding values contained in it guides us in what informs us in what we do. These include the achievement of equality, human dignity, freedom for all, transparency, the rule of law and constitutionalism. We are therefore fortunate in South Africa that, at least concerning ethics in government, we do not have too many questions regarding what is or is not ethical.’

Madonsela said that democracy is generally misunderstood as meaning ‘one person, one vote’. ‘Especially young people in SA are disillusioned,’ she said. ‘They say their parents fought for freedom; instead they got democracy. Today poverty is the new “pass”, preventing people from enjoying a better life. Madonsela expressed the opinion that the disillusionment with democracy was the result of people having reduced it to a once-in-every-five-years opportunity to vote for public representatives.  ‘Athenian democracy was not about voting,’ she said. ‘It was about people’s power. In Athens the public representatives ignored their mandate at their peril. Can we say the same about government in South Africa? True representation has been lost – if you look at registered members of political parties, all the parties together represent only around 10% of the country’s people. For democracy to hold, it has to work for all. If this is not the case, extremism with its false promise of quick results arises.’

In conclusion, Madonsela said that the critical role of universities is transforming people’s minds and lives through education. ‘Each generation has the opportunity and responsibility to make the next chapter of society and the world a better one,’ she said. ‘It is our time to step up and show up, and to restore the ethical foundations of democracy and make democracy work for all.’

Click here to watch the lecture.

About Prof Madonsela 

Prof Thulisile “Thuli” Madonsela is the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice and Law Professor at the University of Stellenbosch, where she teaches Constitutional and Administrative Law and conducts and coordinates social justice research. She is also the founder of the Thuma Foundation, an independent democracy leadership and literacy social enterprise. Amongst many other accolades, in 2014 she was named one of TIME 100’s most influential people in the world, and Forbes Africa Person of the Year 2016.

An advocate of the High Court of South Africa, Prof Madonsela has been a lifelong activist for social justice, constitutionalism, human rights, good governance and the rule of law. Professor Madonsela is one of the drafters of the South Africa’s Constitution and co-architect of several laws that have sought to anchor South Africa’s democracy. 

Prof Madonsela rose to national prominence during her seven-year term as South Africa’s Public Protector, a quasi-judicial administrative oversight body responsible for investigating and redressing maladministration, corruption executive ethics violations and related improprieties in state affairs.

About the Founders Lecture

The idea of a Founders Lecture was introduced at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 2003, the aim being to encourage the University and its stakeholders to focus on critical issues in higher education at both global and national levels. Over the years a variety of topics, presented by eminent and renowned scholars from across the Continent and the globe, have established the Founders Lecture as a forum for intellectual engagement of the highest order. Unisa is honoured to continue that tradition in the person of Prof Thuli Madonsela.

* By Philip van der Merwe