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Human dignity

August 30, 2012

South African human rights activist Denis Goldberg is campaigning for schools to teach how a fairer world could function. He is now lecturing in German schools.

paper cut-outs of people; Copyright: Fotolia/pilatoida
Image: Fotolia/pilatoida

South African human rights activist Denis Goldberg spent 22 years in prison during the apartheid era. Today he is the honorary president of the charity HEART (Health Education and Reconstruction Training), which he founded himself in Britain in 1995. Last year, Goldberg received the German Order of Merit for his work on German-South African relations and his campaign for social justice. He tells DW why education is so important for humanity.

DW: Mr. Goldberg, you campaign for humanity and social justice worldwide, things for which you believe that centers of education and the media are also responsible. In your opinion, how should people be brought to understand humanitarian causes?

Denis Goldberg: When people go to school, you always assume that their teachers are trained. But what do the students learn? Mostly just facts, dates, the names of kings, and what wars were fought under their reigns. Education is important in and of itself, but the substance of what is being taught is also important. In history or politics classes, we also have to find out about relationships within society. Do the rich hold power, for example? And, if the term social democracy comes up, what does social mean, what does democracy mean?

I was 10 years old in 1943 - at the time of the Second World War and Nazi-Fascism, and racism throughout Europe. In my schoolbook it said that South Africa was a democracy because all adults could vote. When I came home, I told my mom, "In my schoolbook it says that all adults in South Africa can vote, but it's just the white people." That's an example of critical thinking. I was brought up in a home where such things were discussed. It is always important to understand the background and to learn to structure things and evaluate.

Denis Goldberg © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki
Denis Goldberg calls for schools to promote a better societyImage: DW/K. Danetzki

In other words, you believe that there is not enough critical thinking, and facts are not questioned readily enough. Is that a global problem, or are industrialized nations more advanced in that area?

There is a stratum of society where the idea that parents explain things to their children is highly valued. I believe that schools, teachers and the media, especially television, should convey values like humanism and humanity everywhere in the world. It is about people understanding each other.

In South Africa we call that "ubuntu." It is an African concept of humanism, and it means something like: I only exist through others. In other words, I am nothing without society, without a community. Ubuntu demands solidarity among people. And in our world of exploitation, where there is so much wealth and so much poverty, this solidarity, this common humanity between people, has been forgotten.

Do you have examples of where something like this works, where people have achieved something together, from an educational point of view?

I come from South Africa. When we were liberated from apartheid in 1994, half of the population was illiterate. Now, around 90 percent of children go to school. But a lot of the schools have inadequate infrastructures, the buildings are old, or the classrooms are out in the open - under a particular tree. That is very difficult for children. But we are slowly building up something. And if you go to our universities, you no longer just see a sea of white faces, but faces from all South Africans. That's important.

You believe that one should learn more social skills in order to change society in the long-term.

In civil societies and organizations you can learn and grow up informally. But in other parts of the world, there is also this tendency of learning through the Internet. That means you look at a screen and learn something. In my experience, about 30 percent of young people can learn that way. But there is also a middle layer, which also makes up about a third, and a bottom layer, that needs help. They need human help, motivation, understanding; they need explanations for difficult concepts and issues. But those who have no access to a higher academic level end up neglected.

Children at a computer Picture: Angelika Warmuth dpa/lni
It's in school that changes in society can be promotedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's true in Germany, too.

I have learned a lot from the German education system. But I know, for example, that schoolchildren with immigrant backgrounds with only a non-academic, secondary school education do not have a good chance of getting a job. They finish school and become unemployed for life, and dependent. That is tragic. We have to develop another answer to the questions: what is social and what is work?

Education is often linked to business: what gets taught is what business needs.

In modern industrial nations, fewer and fewer workers are needed to produce the things their society requires. What do we do with those who are left over when there's no work left in production? How do we deal with the necessity of looking after children and old people? Old people are put into old people's homes and treated badly, without any respect for what they've achieved during their lives. We need to build parks, leisure spaces, places to spend time. That's also part of being a human being. For the first time in human history we have a functioning social system, and we have the financial means to help people and to treat them in a humane way. But we don't do it.

Not everybody is a do-gooder, and not everywhere is there a social state. But you don't just want to base your demands on that. What you see as help is probably more like a push for self-help?

I don't want people to just get money - to just get something to live on. I want them to have the chance to have human dignity by working themselves and creating something in society. If families get social welfare, they can still work for a few hours a week. But what do they do with their children during that time? If a mother gets a sudden phone call saying she can work stacking shelves in the supermarket, and there's no kindergarten, then she can't go to work. There's a need for more child-care, including childminders. But then people have to be paid enough that they can live a decent life.

You've refered to your experience in South Africa as well as your experience in Europe. Looking at these different systems and cultures, is there any kind of global approach which would work anywhere and be understood everywhere?

There is - in the sense that there is a global idea of human dignity and mutual respect. It's time that the former colonies and their people are not just viewed from a European perspective. There's been a traveling exhibition in Germany and Europe going on for years now called "The Third World in the Second World War," and there's a picture in it of a black soldier with the caption: "There were more soldiers from Africa than from Europe in the Second World War. How did they become liberators?" Black Africa with its soldiers and resources liberated Europe from the Nazis, or at least helped to do so. And what did they get in exchange? A bicycle and a few shillings. They didn't get any pension or compensation.

Hands on a globe
Goldberg says there are common values for people worldwideImage: Fotolia/Joachim Wendler

Africa has contributed much to civilization and I'm very interested in trying to understand that. That's why I would like to bring that exhibition to Africa - to help Africans restore their pride.

So it's not just about helping people help themselves, but also about cultural and educational exchange as part of one's continuing education?

Yes, but it can't be done without help. Where can a country like South Africa get the money for such a project? Luckily, there are foundations and people in rich countries who understand the need as a result of their own understanding of our common humanity. That's why I've been able to do my 34th speaking tour through Germany. I always speak out against racism, against prejudice and narrow-mindedness, and in favor of civic courage. There's a wonderful project here in Germany called "School without racism, school with courage." It's not enough to have a beautiful vision. You've got to do something about it - and that is moral courage. If you see racism, you have to say, "Not when I'm around!" That's important, that's human. And I see it in schools throughout Germany. I'm often invited to speak about such things - and I'm very happy about that. I do the same in South Africa as well as in Great Britain, and I've also been to the United States and Canada. That's my task in this life.

Interview: Gaby Reucher / bk, mll