This is an ongoing and new series devoted to the South African Secular Society (SASS) and South African secularism. The Past President, Jani Schoeman, and the Current President, Rick Raubenheimer, and the current Vice-President, Wynand Meijer, will be taking part in this series to illuminate these facets of South Africa culture to us. The whole SASS-y gang join us.
Here we talk about, well, variations on a theme.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk a little bit about the Secularist of the Year project. What was the cue for making one through SASS?
Jani Schoeman: Do you guys remember whose idea it was? I can’t remember.
Rick Raubenheimer: I don’t. If memory serves, I think it was Jani’s, but I stand to be corrected.
Schoeman: I think it was but I don’t want to say it was me if it wasn’t me. I thought that would be nice. I remember the first one we awarded was to Hans Pietersen. Scott, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Hans Pietersen and the OGOD organization?
Hans Pietersen is probably the head of the organization. It was a court case that was quite famous in South Africa that took place. I think it was two years ago. I don’t want to lie.
Wynand Meijer: It was June 2017.
Schoeman: Yes. His organization took I think it was five or six public schools to court.
Raubenheimer: It was six.
Schoeman: Was it six?
Schoeman: I don’t want to phrase this incorrectly. I don’t know if one of you know exactly what the right term is of why they took those schools to court?
Raubenheimer: Essentially, they were contravening the Schools Act and regulations in terms of promoting a given religious view at their particular schools.
Schoeman: Yes, exactly.
Raubenheimer: For example, some of them would have religious symbols in their coat of arms or on their premises. They would say things like, “We promote the Christian ethos.” That sort of thing.
Schoeman: Maybe have a Christian slogan or something like that.
Raubenheimer: And things like sectarian religious services at assembly and so on.
Jacobsen: How prevalent was this, the intrusion of that?
Schoeman: It’s still very prevalent, I think. The problem is that it was in what we call a “government school”, which is like what you guys call a “public school”. Because we have a secular constitution, that is technically not allowed. I don’t know if the schools over there, if you have “assembly”. That’s something that some schools have every morning, where everybody gathers in a big hall. They do an opening for the day.
Schoeman: Sometimes they have it once a week. Some schools do it every day. For example, a lot of the schools will have a Bible reading and a prayer during assembly. There was this thing called “opt out” but then what are those other kids supposed to do that are not part of their religion and also, how fair is that on them if they are being told, “You must just stand outside if you don’t want to take part.”? What’s that going to do in terms of the dynamic of bullying and all of that?
The court case was very interesting, and everything that it tied into. They ended up having mostly a win on that. That was the first person we gave the Secularist of the Year award to, when that court case was won.
I thought that it would be an excellent opportunity for someone to thank this person for what he did. I’m sure hundreds and thousands of kids were affected by it. I wanted to show appreciation for that and I thought an organization such as ours would be the kind of organization that should be awarding this person.
It was also, obviously, a good opportunity for us to get noticed and also cross-pollinate with other groups. This guy is based in the Western Cape Province. A lot of good things came from that.
Jacobsen: How are you going about deliberating who is worth an award for a year?
Schoeman: The first award we gave, I think I suggested this person and then we had a vote on it or something. This year we went about it differently. We had a whole nominations process. People submitted names and reasons why they nominated people for Secularist of the Year. Then we had a vote. The first time around, I don’t remember exactly. Do one of you remember? Rick, do you remember?
Raubenheimer: A bit vaguely. This time we called for nominations. We had two, which were Jani and Dr. Patrick Pillay. Then we debated it at the annual general meeting and put it to the vote. It was then proposed that we split this and do an appreciation award for Jani and give the Secularist to the Year to Dr. Pillay.
Schoeman: Yes. I also nominated Dr. Pillay, along with one other person.
Jacobsen: Why Doctor Pillay?
Schoeman: He stood out for me in terms of what he has done in the space of secularism in South Africa. We don’t have a lot of people in this country who are known for secularism or doing something for secularism. When somebody like that comes up and stands out, you immediately notice them, I think.
Jacobsen: What kind of press can you get for giving out awards for Secularist of the Year in South Africa?
Schoeman: Not huge. [Laughing] I think everybody from our organization and from their organization – I’m talking about the first time around – did know about the award. It went all over Facebook. We did a blog about it, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think the press was interested; I don’t know if they would have been interested in it. Did we make an attempt to try and get it more out there? I’m not sure.
Raubenheimer: Oh, yes.
Meijer: Yes, we did.
Schoeman: I think I remember now. We did actually try. It’s not a huge amount of press that we got from that.
Jacobsen: Are there other countries in Africa that actually will have a Secularist of the Year or a Humanist of the Year award?
Schoeman: Not that I can think of, specifically. No, not that I’m aware of.
Jacobsen: In other words, this is one of the few, if not the only, Secularist of the Year Award in Africa?
Schoeman: Could be. [Laughing] Yes, could be.
Jacobsen: For those who are in a context who want to found an award for a Secularist or Humanist, et cetera, of the Year, in their particular nation in Africa, what would be a recommendation for them? How should they go about doing it?
Schoeman: Wow. That’s a good question. I don’t know if someone else wants to have a go at that?
Raubenheimer: Considering that our attempt at it has been rather amateurish, it probably is not a good thing for people to try to learn from us.
Raubenheimer: I think maybe come back to us in a few years’ time, once we’ve got it going and the press is all raving about it; and we get front page news on the newspapers and first slot on the radio and TV news when we announce the Secularist of the Year. Then we’ll have done it right.
Jacobsen: I think that’ll be a good closing line for the session.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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