THEM AND US: Police in Wolseley fire rubber bullets and tear gas at protesting farmworkers cowering against a guard rail in the towns main road yesterday. It is a mistake to think we can use the police enforcement processes as a glue to keep our society together, says the writer. Picture: Brenton Geach

Our society’s efforts at democracy and freedom face many significant threats. Among the most fundamental of these is the high level of ignorance that besets citizens at all levels.

Two main risks are associated with the threat of ignorance. The first is that it can make people fail to take advantage of the available opportunities to manifest their positive potential.

The second risk is that it can cause people to seek self-expression in anti-social activities. Ignorance worsens hubristic tendencies in people and makes it difficult for them to identify and exploit value- creation opportunities while effectively managing risks.

The tragedy of the deaths resulting from a labour-related conflict at Marikana in August speaks loudly to the risks posed by ignorance to our society.

It underlines the serious risks we create by promoting ignorance and failing to build effective bridges between our various interest groups. Importantly, it also brings into sharp focus the fatal mistake of thinking we can use push-button policing and law enforcement as a glue to keep our society together.

It emphasises the crying need – as if we need more reminders – for day-to-day practical and inspirational leadership. The police, the NPA, the public protector, the auditor-general, and all other state agencies linked to the function of upholding the law will always have important roles to play.

But it is a dangerous fallacy to think we can achieve pre-eminence as a nation, merely through reactive detection and mitigation of the excesses of the lawless. This nation requires an army of proactive people of character, independence and community consciousness to save its promising present and future from both its ignorant self and its ominous past.

History shows that ignorance can be used as a weapon of destruction, without limit. It has been used systematically to inflict long-term harm upon the causes of nations, religions and cultures.

It has been utilised to deliberately create corrosive environments of self-pity by victims, self-importance by victors and lawlessness by choice.

These hubristic aberrations serve to halt development and precipitate chaos. There is strong evidence to suggest our society is starting to pay heavily for our past lengthy periods of futile conflicts and failure to develop leadership.

Nonetheless, the gravest challenge to our society remains the fact that too many people – who are critical stakeholders in the transformation process – are neither initiating learning for themselves nor being taught in an effective manner.

Learning as contemplated here, does not refer simply to formal education. Rather it has three main dimensions: the development of optimal levels of consciousness about the self, the environment and faith matters; the practical training of the self to exercise responsibility through internal power; and the consolidation of the two learning processes to create sustainable personal competence. These critical learning processes need to take place for people to establish their foundational knowledge, gain proper command of language and internalise ethical behaviour.

There are four primary reasons why a healthy culture of learning has not flourished in our society in the last two decades of democracy.

The first relates directly to the scale and complexity of the damage caused to our society by apartheid.

Second, the successive post-1994 democratic governments have balked at the task of making and implementing unpopular, but effective, decisions to make learning and teaching our way of life as a nation. This refers particularly to the need to re-establish structures and processes to support informal learning within communities destabilised deliberately by apartheid.

Informal learning should be at the base of our learning systems and should take place consistently at community level, starting within the family.

This critical step is urgently required to undo the harmful “knowledge” systems of apartheid. It should ensure that character development – focused on building integrity – starts early and does not lose ground to academic and vocational training.

It is true that the streams of academic and vocational education form the flesh and blood of modern human development. But character development is the skeleton upon which they hang.

The third reason is that capitalism has been allowed to continue to reward people arbitrarily for itself, instead of developing them holistically for society.

The last reason is that the media has tended to struggle to balance the use of its considerable power.

It has struggled to balance efforts at holding officialdom accountable, with using creative courage to promote individuals, institutions and causes – especially those among ordinary people – capable of providing knowledge-based alternative pathways to a workable future for our society.

There is no doubt that the most effective antidote against the threat of ignorance and its attendant risks is learning.

There is also no doubt that many people are inclined to pursue good causes with their lives, providing there is a leadership environment to assist them to overcome the deadly trap of ignorance.

Evidence shows that the most effective way to counter the risk of anti-social behaviours is to reinforce positive behaviours of goodwill, through focused and supported learning.

Our society will not be grounded – and our developmental state will remain a dream – as long as we do not deliberately search for, and incentivise, people who are genuinely committed to balancing technical development with human development, and earning with learning.

Learning is a deliberate and time-consuming process which, in many a case, does not take place without effective teaching. Although learning is known to produce good outcomes, it is also a difficult and painful process, and many people tend to avoid it.

Conversely, ignorance needs neither conscious intentions nor trained capabilities to destroy value – existing or future.

A dynamic new approach is required to identify, develop and deploy learning companions to assist communities to create long-term value, as our politics and capitalism focus increasingly on helpless votes and heartless profits.

South Africa is unlikely to start showing the long-term improvement it needs, until communities have regained their power through learning. Our entire society is currently ruled from the workplace through the power of resources, where the power of earning outstrips the power of learning.

The disproportionate power of the workplace, including both public and private sectors, captures many young talented, but naive, people fresh from disempowered communities. It indoctrinates them and makes them little more than instruments of commerce, capitalising on their fear of hunger and poverty, as well as propensity for showmanship over substance.

It takes too long to come to the realisation that the real challenge for underprivileged people is not merely to make career progress at the workplace. It is also to do so while optimising the development of their human potential through learning, which is powerful enough to provide for their material needs, without disconnecting them from their meaningful community purposes.

l Sakong is the founder and executive chairman of Montshepetja Academy and author of “Servicing the Community Debt”.