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Thought Thursdays
We the people … shaping an ethos



In a group, a man told how, as a boy, he had sat on a high hill and watched his village being attacked and destroyed by neighbours who belonged to another religion. He described his hatred toward those men, some of whom he had known and liked. He told how a thought had come unbidden as he watched: What would I feel if I had been born into one of those families? What if a wind had blown my soul a few hundred meters off course, and I had entered the belly of one of those mothers, instead of my own mother? Then I would feel victory and pride, as they do, and not grief and rage, as I do—and I would hate us and love them. – Hellinger


We are storytellers. We, the leaders. We tell our stories in a particular context, sometimes unique contexts. As storytellers we understand that the truth is contextual and that contexts are infinite. I sit in the back of a class in Stellenbosch filled with senior executives and we listen to an authentic leader telling his story. He is retired Judge Albie Sachs. His story covers the coming about of our Constitution and he tells it with gravitas, with intensity, but without any emotional manipulation or guilt-tripping. He tells the story of OR Tambo's critical role in the origin and unfolding of the Constitution's birth. Then he profoundly states: "The significance of the Constitution depends not only on the text, but on the people!" That's why it starts with 'We the people …'

We know that we cannot have what we want when we want it. Yet, we live with and among people with similar desires. What constitutes justice in this context? We need something to guide us in what is just for an individual or a community, all sharing the same space and the same resources. This is what the text of the Constitution captures for us, but if not acted upon by We the people then it remains text and does not shape our character or become our national ethos – that by which we are characterised as a South African nation.

The Constitution's text defines the fundamental terms of our terms of association. Our Constitution captures the first principles of our conception of justice.


Do We the People make an effort to see ourselves as free and rational persons (like Albie Sachs and OR Tambo), acknowledging that we all want to further our own interests (a normal thing to do). Do we then consult the text of the Constitution as our terms of association to judge how far we can pursue our own interests without compromising the interests of others?  If We the people discover this conduct as free and rational persons, we discover the gateways that regulate and respect our agreements and our conversations. If we do not, our societal agreements and conversations are compromised – as seen in our state capture saga, in how corrupt directors of boards conduct themselves, in shady deals between individuals and businesses, and between business and government, where captured state institutions act with disregard for the agreements informed by our Constitution.

If We the [free and rational] people do not make an effort to bring the text of the Constitution to life, two concerns emerge, namely that of truth and that of critical thinking.

On truth: Einstein, in one of his writings, said that truth "resembles a statue of marble which stands in the desert and is continually threatened with burial by the shifting sand. The hands of service must ever be at work, in order that the marble continues lastingly to shine in the sun". Knowledge of the truth captured in our Constitution alone will not suffice. It requires practice, ceaseless effort to bring it to bear.

On critical thinking: Our current public discourse is testimony of destructive, powerless complaint that results in dominant cynicism. To me, this is a symptom of embittered people who have given up the vital intellectual exercise of critical thinking – informed, among others, by what the Constitution expects of We the people in order to pursue human progress in this country. The latter includes the protection of our sense of justice and requires active citizenry.


Some of our stories are big stories. Complex stories. We tell them on a national level. This is imperative because participating in this national conversation, this discourse, we intellectually participate in the human progress of our country. The challenge is in knowing how to participate. What can we learn from the story in the preface and from Albie Sachs? Empathy, authenticity, respect and critical thinking come to mind. When We the people and I the individual use these as guidelines while we add our utterances to the discourse, we can expect to produce new knowledge upon which we can act in society. The quality of our utterances will determine the quality of our conversation and so the quality of the knowledge we produce.


We need a discourse ethos that will enable us to participate with confidence and free expression yet be regulated to ensure empathy, authenticity, respect and critical thinking. Regulated by whom? We the people that use the knowledge of our Constitution as guide for responsible action, to converse with respect and deep empathy, while critically addressing the important issues of our society.

Frik Landman.jpg

Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development.

Listen to Albie Sachs podcast: for context.​

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