Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 24 issue 4

Humanism in South Africa

Tariq Moosa

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 24, Number 4 (Winter 2008/2009).

John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty” in 1859: “The exclusive pretension made by a part of the truth to be the whole must and ought to be protested against.” Elsewhere in the same year, the brilliant naturalist Charles Darwin published the groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in which he wrote: “It is truly a wonderful fact—the wonder of which we are apt to overlook with familiarity—that all animals and all plants throughout all time and space should be related to each other in group subordinate to group, in the manner we everywhere behold.”

I am thankful for being born and living in Africa, not only because it is the place where such important discoveries like the oldest hominid fossil, Sahelan thropus tchadensis, occurred but also because it is a place of such great beauty. There is the stereotypical but no less true African scene of grazing elephants near a quiet watering-hole with birds singing and placid bucks flipping their heads to rid themselves of flies. Golden grass sways in a gentle breeze.

But further south and further back in time, the picture was darker. My own country of South Africa rejected the progress in philosophy and science of both Mill and Darwin and instead turned toward repressive social policies. Benches were demarcated with “net blanke” (“Whites Only”), and entrances too were divided into “Whites” and “Other” (or just “Blacks”). That “net blanke” sign was the prevailing consciousness all over the world not so long ago, resulting in the designation of “savages” who were the targets of missionaries and European rule.

I, luckily, never had to deal to any great extent with apartheid. But less than a hundred years ago, my family would have not have been treated with any form of respect. Less then two decades ago, I would not have been allowed in certain areas of the country or public places or to be employed at certain jobs, and so on.

South Africa is but one part in the puzzle that was left by the mid-twentieth century decolonization process, which left many bitter, half-spoken sentences called “republics” hanging in the air like an unfinished heated argument. Martin Meredith has documented this change in his book The State of Africa. He claims that nearly all the recently decolonized African countries fell into the hands of power-hungry African tyrants.1 It is truly a shocking revelation that newly “freed” peoples, suddenly tasting power, rallied for repression around their flagpoles.

The countries of the African continent are nowhere near becoming stable. This is disheartening, but there is hope. Consider: we have overcome a truly horrific period of racism. Humans can be seen as humans. There is no government forcing “othering” to occur between blacks, whites, etc. Race is nothing but pigmentation that denotes next to nothing about whom it covers. For too long, color has been a veil enshrouding a potential friend, lover, or mentor beneath its swaths. Casting that aside has been 
glorifying for our species as a whole, yet there are remnants. We are slowly burning them off human consciousness with truth and reason.

But there are other problems. Natural selection appears to have left traces of tribal defense mechanisms implanted in our brains, and violence can be the result. Darwin wrote, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” I watched with the rest of the world in utter horror as our second democratically elected president, Thabo Mbeki, was ousted. Personal vendettas have usurped the place of the people in governmental decision-making.

Also, many of my fellow South Africans cling to superstitions. The majority of the population would rather go to traditional healers than doctors. Many majority Afrikaner areas, whose residents are also largely fundamentalist Christians, are rife with so-called satanic panic.2 Children are accused of practicing witchcraft when they rebel against tyrannical parents who are shoving god and religious belief into their growing minds.

As a people, as a nation, we have nobody asking us: Do you believe that religion should be in politics? Do you believe that the teaching of evolution undermines Christianity? Would you seek a doctor for help? There is no central body in South Africa representing science, reason, humanism and the separation of church and state.

My own University of Cape Town (which produced no less than four Nobel laureates, most for scientific accomplishments!), has acquiesced to religious bullying. We have many religious groups, which, if the development of the nation is a sentence being written, are like random, ill-placed exclamation points. Slowly, the group I am spokesperson for is finding its feet. It is difficult, but we are finding many individuals and groups ready to unite against superstition.

It is strange that the fight for humanism is so lax in a place so close to the birthplace of modern humans. But again, I do not feel negativity or pessimism. I see no reason to be upset and am more than annoyed when someone mentions that my country is “going down the drain.” It is not. If we are to peel back the shadows off the ghosts of our past, it will take a united effort. It will take combined passion and optimism.

I strongly believe in the fight for reason, truth, respect, and justice for everyone, always, and I have dedicated my life for humanity’s good. We are correctly skeptical, as Mill has pointed out to us, of those who profess to know the whole truth. But our small aspirations to see the calm voice of humanism display itself in South Africa is slowly gaining a sonorous harmony with the international community. Where better to take our first steps than the cradle of a place we all call home.



  1. Meredith, M. The State of Africa—A History of Fifty Years of Independence. London: The Free Press, 2006.
  2. This term is from the title of a book. See: Victor, J. Satanic Panic. London: Open Court, 1993.

Tauriq Moosa is a spokesperson for the University of Capetown Atheist and Agnostic Society and a columnist for The Edger.

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