Mind the values gap: do we really believe in the Constitution?

by | Jul 14, 2014

author profile picture

About Kayum Ahmed

Kayum Ahmed is Division Director at the Open Society Foundations in New York where he leads the Public Health Program’s global work on access to medicines and innovation. He also teaches a class on socioeconomic rights as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School.


Kayum Ahmed, “Mind the Values Gap: Do We Really Believe in the Constitution?” (OxHRH Blog, 14 July 2014) <http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/?p=12082> [date of access].|Kayum Ahmed, “Mind the Values Gap: Do We Really Believe in the Constitution?” (OxHRH Blog, 14 July 2014) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/?p=12082> [date of access].|Kayum Ahmed, “Mind the Values Gap: Do We Really Believe in the Constitution?” (OxHRH Blog, 14 July 2014) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/?p=12082> [date of access].|Kayum Ahmed, “Mind the Values Gap: Do We Really Believe in the Constitution?” (OxHRH Blog, 14 July 2014) <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/?p=12082> [date of access].

South Africans often proudly proclaim that our Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world.  Yet if you ask most South Africans how they really feel about gay rights and abortion, their answers, more often than not, contradict the values enshrined in the Constitution.

Understanding this “values gap” between our personal values on the one hand, and constitutional values on the other, is important because it provides us with insights into the nature of South African society.

So who are we?  A recent Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) study suggests that 63% of us are opposed to same sex relationships, and 73% of our population believe that a woman cannot refuse sex with her husband if he demands it.  By the way, that last statistic includes women respondents to the survey. Given the gap between our personal values and the values enshrined in the constitution, the question we are confronted with is how do we bridge this values gap?  The response one often receives is: education.  More specifically, human rights education. The logic is that if we teach people about the rights in the Constitution, they are more likely to understand and accept these rights.  Unfortunately, this is not quite the case.

As part of my studies on human rights education, I tested this hypothesis by conducting a survey of students currently participating in a South African masters degree programme in one of the most prestigious international human rights law programmes in the country.  All of the students enrolled in the masters programme participated in the anonymous survey which compared their personal values to the constitutional values. On the question of whether gay people should have the right to marry, 56% agreed that same-sex couples should have this right, and 22% strongly disagreed.  About 42% of the class supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while 50% of students were opposed to abortion.

We assume that most, if not all, students studying human rights law would fully support human rights principles, and therefore would be supportive of the values enshrined in the Constitution.  However, only 62% agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “my personal values are the same as the values in the Bill of Rights.”  Twenty-five percent of students disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. Some of these masters students are likely to go on to teach other students.  Many of them may go on to become judges and policy makers given their level of expertise and education.  What do you think will happen when those masters students become policy makers, and those policy makers are confronted with questions pertaining to gender equality and same sex rights?

When comparing the results of my survey to the FHR survey, it is evident that the values gap exhibited by the masters students is far smaller than the gap between the personal and constitutional values of most South Africans. This means that human rights education does appear to have a positive impact on bridging the values gap but its effect is not quite as compelling as proponents of human rights education have led us to believe.

People with low levels of education are often targeted through human rights education programmes.  This is important, but I would argue that it is insufficient. The evidence shows that the values gap amongst those of us who have acquired masters degrees and have been appointed as decision makers – judges, teachers, policy specialists and political office bearers – remains significant.

It seems counter-intuitive to want to develop human rights education strategies focussed on the highly educated in our society.  However, given the role played by the educated elite in decision-making, it is imperative that we start bridging the values gap by acknowledging that it is not only the poor who need to be ‘workshopped.’ The personal beliefs and values of the priviledged and powerful need some shaking up too.

But as you know, us educated types do not like being questioned.  We know what’s best for you.  Well at least 62% of us do.


This post is a redacted version of Kayum’s findings. The full report may be found here.

Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment