CAPE TOWN - When we celebrate our annual Human Rights Day on March 21, we should also pause to reflect on how the basic human rights of so many people continue to be violated all over the world.
This happens with regard to first dimension political and civil rights, second dimension socio-economic rights and third dimension ecological and environmental rights.
The Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution envisions a life of dignity for all, healing of all wounds for all, justice for all, freedom for all, and equality for all.
For rights to be fulfilled, we need individuals who embody these rights. We need role-models. We need examples. We need people of whom we can say: they live with dignity. They advance healing. They are just people. They enjoy and accelerate freedom. They practice equity that brings forth equality.
Individuals who embody rights are persons of character and virtue. Character literally means good values are engraved into us. Character means we are people of integrity. Our good desires, thoughts, words and actions are all integrated.
Our intents and impacts are increasingly integrated. Our intents are noble as well as our impact. Therefore, we will always scrutinise and cleanse our intents so that it can lead to right, good and even beautiful impacts.
Civic virtues refer to our embodied values. Virtue refers to the intuitions, inclinations, tendencies, predispositions and programmedness with which we live.
Virtue means we do what is wise and right and good and beautiful without even reflecting upon it. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes the moral life as one where we embody what is wise, just, good, and especially beautiful.
Beauty is the climax of ethical living. Ethics reaches fulfilment in ethics. So, we can say where human rights are not fulfilled, our society is not only unwise, unjust, bad, but also ugly. Our Bill of Rights is a transformative document that steers us away from apartheid that is ugly to dignifying democracy that is beautiful!
Societies worldwide need the beauty of the seven classic and cardinal virtues. We need faith, secureness, assurance and conviction amidst the communal feeling that we are without anchors. We need realistic, responsive and resilient hope in times of so much despair, apathy and melancholy.
We need love and compassion in a time of many pandemics. We need wisdom and discernment in a time of VUCA, ie volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We need temperance, moderation, balance, level-headedness and open minds in a time when extremes and absolutisations gain in popularity in all walks of life.
We need fortitude to bear suffering patiently and to affect crucial changes courageously. We need embodied justice in individuals and institutions, in souls and societies.
Human rights need right humans. Human rights also need right institutions. Without good institutions, democracies with their bills of rights struggle to flourish. We need good institutions in all walks of life.
This includes the spheres of political and governmental life, on local, provincial, national, continental and global levels; the sphere of broader state life that includes the judiciary and bodies like the Gender Equality Commission and Human Rights Commission; the sphere of corporate life; the sphere of public discourse and public opinion-formation; and the sphere of civil society with all its individuals and institutions in areas like education, faith, sport, culture, arts, neighbourhoods, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, peoples movements, voluntary societies and clubs.
Democracies need strong schools and healthy religious institutions. Democracies need strong parliaments and municipalities, as well as strong and independent courts. We also need noble businesses and enterprises.
Yes, we need to build strong institutions. Democracies with our bills of rights, need, among others, strong universities. Universities owe democracy so much, argue president of Johns Hopkins University, Ronald J Daniels and his co-authors Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector in their book What Universities owe Democracy (2021).
Universities should be strengthened because they seek, share and nurture, in close co-operation with broader society, knowledge, values and skills that advance a life of dignity, healing, justice, freedom, and equality for all, including humans, nature and the planet as a whole.
When Daniel Colt Gilman was inaugurated as first president of Johns Hopkins University on February 22, 1876, he stated in his inaugural address what universities are about:
“It is a reaching out for a better state of society than now exists; it is a dim but an indelible impression of the value of learning;
“It is a craving for intellectual and moral growth; it is a longing to interpret the laws of creation; it means a wish for less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in the temple, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics.
“It means more study of nature, more love of art, more lessons from history, more security in property, more health in cities, more virtue in the country, more wisdom in legislation, more intelligence, more happiness, more (healthy – added by Nico Koopman) religion.”
Institutions like universities, and individuals of character and virtue, can help us to make tangible a life of dignity, healing, justice, freedom and equality for all!
Prof Nico Koopman is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.