Bridging the academy and civil society

The New Humanist Imperative in South Africa, Ed. John de Gruchy, Stellenbosch: SUN Press, 2011

As a postgraduate scholar of literature at UCT, I have pushed myself hard over the last seven years to research texts that explore the South African human condition. Motivating this is a deeply personal as well as a socially constituted belief that to engage ethically with this country, one has to be prepared to examine the uncomfortable truths embedded in one’s field – mine being local literary imaginations. However, my desire to read contemporary South African fiction through – and here I paraphrase Theodor Adorno – a splintered eye1 , has brought with it frustrations.

These frustrations come from the feeling that my discourse, or my mode of address, having grown through the reserved language and strictures of the academy, prevent me from reaching into the dirt and muck of the human condition that I am drawn to in certain novels. The tools with which I interrogate texts often elicit feelings of restrictions. Also, the thought that I can find viable bridges between real, hard social life and the world of literary or academic expression often seems arrogant to me and this stifles me too. Perhaps, I find myself thinking, I should not have chosen this métier, but rather one that pushes me, viscerally and immediately, to experience and “be human” amidst the grit and the suffering that I want to write about critically. Perhaps a deeply real and ethical engagement with what it means for the majority of South Africans to be alive in this country can never come through being within the academy.

This is not a question that plagues me alone, of course. I know my frustrations are shared by many a “privileged” person who also desires to “be-in-the-world” in an engaged way. Thus, when I encountered John de Gruchy’s carefully compiled and edited collection of essays and reflections, assembled from The New Humanism project at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), I felt inspired and enlivened by the insights that this collection of excellent scholars gave into my concerns, as well as into the meaning of being human and ethically engaged in South Africa today.

The New Humanism project came about in response to a challenge laid down by Dr Mamphela Ramphele to “white males” (12) to “break the silence and speak to the issues, especially those that threatened the values championed by the Constitution” (12). De Gruchy, answering this challenge, proposed a gathering of minds at STIAS, in the form of two symposia. These symposia initiated two major conversations around human rights and humanism in South Africa today, which in turn make up the material of this book.

However, The Humanist Imperative in South Africa is not valuable simply because it offers an arrangement of some of the most formidable and radical thinkers in South Africa today, but also because it is framed by De Gruchy’s and the contributors’ awareness that the “struggle for a more humane” society (16) cannot come from such symposia alone but from the careful and deliberate involvement of all members of society in the quest for a more just country of the future. This is expressed throughout the introduction by De Gruchy and is at the heart of the project.

De Gruchy, a self-termed, “Christian humanist” who holds the position of Emeritus Professor of Christian Studies at UCT, has clearly directed this project towards not only political, social and judicial perspectives on the humanist project in South Africa but also towards theological and religious ones. He has been careful, however, to juxtapose religious reflections on the local human condition with the scientific and the secular, to a generally balanced effect.

The overall equilibrium of the book also comes through the sequencing of the essays. De Gruchy explains quite carefully how he has chosen to order the collection, even though he admits that it is almost impossible to separate the different voices from the larger conversation or make the conversation linear in a way that the printed format demands. The symposia, the reader learns, were lively affairs.

I found myself unsure of where I wished to begin the book: at the beginning; in the section entitled “On Being Human”, in the middle section “On Humanism”, at the third section “On Human Dignity and Rights”, or with Stephen Martin’s summary of the post-symposia discussions at the end. The offering of essays is rich and varied and perhaps my indecision came from the fact that, like De Gruchy, I felt that the conversation need not be linear.

At last, though, I decided to trace De Gruchy’s logic and started at the beginning with the section “On Being Human”. On reflection, this section does not read as fluidly as the ones which follow, but De Gruchy’s decision to order the essays in this way is evident after some reading, since each in this section addresses the question of what constitutes a universal, fundamental humanity.

I was particularly struck by the beautiful phrasing employed by many an author as he or she offered insights into South African society. Bernard Lategan’s “ethics of the alternative” (27), for example, speaks of a way of engaging with one another based on interconnectedness and tolerance. Lategan’s call for a new version of humanism where man is “decentred” by alternative practices and encounters with people, resonates with Paul Cilliers’ “ethics of complexity” (31) in the second essay. For Cilliers, human freedom comes from adopting “provisional”, “trangressive” and “creative” (39) modes of being. For him, being human means to adopt an open-minded and flexible understanding of oneself and one’s “system”. For both Lategan and Cilliers, both of these modes of being are possible.

The more cynical reader will appreciate neuropsychologist, Mark Solms’ breakdown of the human mind into its seven mammalian instincts. While this essay seems to be strangely placed, it brings a perspective to the section that is both scientific and almost satirical in its suggestion that we humans are deeply hypocritical and self-delusional, incapable of stopping our base motivations.

Following in quick succession is John de Gruchy’s own essay, where he partners aspects of science to Christian theology, attempting to debunk the myth that science and faith need be antagonistic to one another. His, vision, unlike Solms’, is a positive one, where “being human is a complex evolutionary process of becoming” (65) which includes embracing “the other”.

Admittedly, in this first section of the book, I experienced the combination of De Gruchy’s essay and Denise Ackerman’s following sentiments in “Becoming more fully Human”, where she defines justice as “the right relationship with self, with God, with others and with creation” (72) as a tad weighty on the religious side. I found myself eager to get to the grittier discussions of what constitutes South African society today. Indeed, I am deeply skeptical of the ability of humans to actually achieve the right balance between self and others, let alone with other elements like God and creation. In my mind, this is the beginning of an honest engagement with human beings and each other: the recognition that tolerance is a struggle.

The book’s interspersing of sentimental visions of human society with more critical ones is a pattern that continues throughout though. I found myself enjoying the stream of different perspectives once I had started reading more of the second section and its discussion of the various incarnations of humanism as a discourse in Africa, as well as globally. Ebrahim Moosa’s “Islamic Humanism” adds an alternative view to the religious perspective, and essays like André du Toit’s “The ‘Dark’ side of Humanism” reveal some of the historical ambiguities in colonial and classic humanist practices, offering a critique of the intellectual project of western humanism.

The alternative to western humanism, offered by the likes of Njabulo Ndebele and Jan-Hendrik S. Hofmeyer, is a type of relational humanism, a human-to-human engagement based on community interaction. This relational humanism immediately conjures up the notion of “ubuntu” that Drucilla Cornell and Kenneth Panfilio, amongst others, draw on in their essays.

In fact, it was remarkable how many different contributors to the symposia and the essay collection, including Antje Krog and Deborah Posel, use the concept of "ubuntu", or what Achille Mbembe calls “African humanism” as a point of departure for an ideal mode of  human interaction necessary for South African society to move towards a more just and reconciled state. While the notion of "ubuntu" has been under much critique in the public sphere, and can often be portrayed in a problematically utopian light, it does encapsulate a simple premise, which is useful to this study and central to the fundamental idea of humanism: that acting in consideration of others is the grounds to the preservation of each other’s dignity and basic human rights, even while it is a challenge to do this–especially in a society still marred by gross social injustices.

This ambivalence is picked up in a striking quote from Chinese scholar Tu Wei Ming in Neville Alexander’s essay, which seems to encapsulate the underlying gist of the book: “The world is at a crossroads, with one way leading to irreversible destruction and the disintegration of the world order, the other to a rethinking of what it means to be human.” (196) The friction between humankind’s capacity to ruin itself through intolerance, greed and the total destruction of the earth’s natural homeostasis on the one hand, and its equal capacity to forgive, to heal and create is so clearly evident in our own society, and is what makes ours such a compelling and tragic story. The Humanist Imperative in South Africa represents this ambivalence or duality honestly. As de Gruchy states in his introduction, these essays are not homogenous and do not offer a solution to South Africa’s present-day challenges, but rather reveal the different ways in which one can begin to understand and plot a way forward into the future.

The final “Conversation” compiled by Stephen Martin, contextualises the project in a real and immediate way. The general sense from this is that the New Humanism project at STIAS is only beginning to take shape. The intention of the project is to bring these discussions out of the academy and into the public realm. Each of those involved, as well as being firmly placed within the intellectual realm, is actively engaged with civil society.

I found a number of different ways to name my own feelings about South African society and my role in it, as a scholar and as a civilian. In reading these essays, I have started to sense that my desire to bridge that gap between the academy and civil society is part of a shared project, one that in fact falls under the heading of the new humanist imperative in South Africa, an imperative that is defined by ethical actions in relation to others and to the surrounding world.


1 Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 1978: p. 26.