We live in an interdependent world. Sustainable success for any individual or sector depends on the success of society as a whole. By Kyra Rensburg.
Prof. Thuli Madonsela, former Public Protector of South Africa and the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, argues that South Africans need to unify and act with shared humanity to move forward.
“The conversation around future thinking in agriculture comes at the right time as we are in the process of bouncing forward from Covid-19, as opposed to bouncing back,” said Madonsela, referring to the theme of the Hortgro Technical Symposium: Future Thinking Today.
“For South Africa to bounce forward it needs to include shared humanity, shared prosperity, water security, energy security, food security, general sustainable development for all, and a sustainable environment in our country and beyond.”
As it currently stands
In 1994 the country embarked on democracy with high hopes. When South Africa’s new constitution was drawn up it committed to creating a society of social justice and equality. The goal was to disrupt the existing society and to create a different society, constructed on three pillars: democratic values, social values, and fundamental human rights.
Fast-forward to 2022 and these hopes have not been fulfilled.
According to the Gini Coefficient, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. More than 55% of people live in poverty, and an estimated 46% are unemployed — youth unemployment is estimated at 70%. The education system is in trouble, service delivery is poor, and many South Africans lack sufficient access to water, energy, and food.
“As long as there is injustice somewhere, there cannot be sustainable peace anywhere,” stated Madonsela. “If any group in society feels that things are not working for it then peace is threatened.” In a socially just world, people cannot be thought of as a homogenous group. Individuals in a society have different needs. When it comes to the development of agriculture, Madonsela pointed out that one should ask the question: where is it concentrated and who is being left behind?
The dangers of inequality
According to Madonsela, Covid-19 and state corruption illustrate the consequences of inequality in South Africa.
“There’s an African saying: it is easy to break a matchstick but impossible to break a bundle of matchsticks,” said Madonsela. Covid-19 demonstrated this — in response to the pandemic South Africa was not as resilient as it could have been, because South Africa has not fully invested in everyone.
“This inequality is also a barrier to fighting corruption,” explained Madonsela. “When corrupt people steal from us taxpayers, they make sure that they leave some crumbs in the ecosystem where they are operating.”
The risk is that when voters are asked to choose between clean governance or the associate who leaves crumbs, they will choose the option that they think benefits them. If crumbs are the best they can hope for, that is what they will choose.
Madonsela pointed out that corrupt people are not only those preying on disadvantaged communities — corruption cuts across race, culture, and class. Corrupt individuals also often work together as a network.
A social licence for agriculture
Why does shared humanity matter for agriculture? Madonsela explained that sustainability does not only depend on one’s own productivity.
“There’s something that is called a social licence to operate, which is having everyone support what we do,” said Madonsela. When people feel that democracy is not working for them, they are more easily drawn into criminality, which impacts sectors such as agriculture. No individual or business can function without the goodwill of the rest of society.
“At the core of shared humanity is the interconnectedness and mutual dependence of humanity,” said Madonsela. “And this is anchored in the equal worth and dignity of all human beings.” She quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said that humanity is only still around because of shared humanity.
Madonsela suggested that the version of shared humanity that South Africa needs to embrace is ubuntu. “The shared humanity in terms of ubuntu is when you don’t care what the other human being looks like. As long as they are human beings, they are worthy of respect.”
Invest in trees and people
“The way forward is people who are ecosystem and futuristic thinkers — whatever you do, ask yourself what kind of ecosystem it is going to create this year?” advised Madonsela. The world is changing so rapidly that we should think of the future as the present.
The best time to start building a better future is now. “We need to join hands for social justice so that all the good things we are doing come together like that group of matchsticks that can’t be broken,” said Madonsela.
The core of Madonsela’s message is that to invest in agriculture, we must first invest in people. This will lead to more people that can invest in agriculture and ultimately in investment in all South Africa’s people.
“If you want prosperity for a year, invest in crops. If you want prosperity for about ten years or so, invest in trees. If you want prosperity beyond a hundred years, invest in people,” concluded Madonsela, quoting a Chinese proverb. “I would say let’s invest in both trees and people.”
Image: From left to right: Tanja Hichert, professional futurist; Dr Ilse Trautmann, Deputy Director General: Agricultural Research and Regulatory Services, Western Cape Department of Agriculture; Prof. Thuli Madonsela, Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University. Supplied by Echo Media.