The conflicting demands of transformation

Daniel Herwitz says there is no easy way to negotiate between often incompatible imperatives

Negotiating the Multiple Demands of Transformation

A friend of mine, whom I shall refer to under the pseudonym of Dr. Kildare (from the American TV series), is about to be forced into retirement by the Western Cape provincial government. Dr. Kildare is a physician who runs a clinic for uninsured people, or people seeking care through the public sector at the university’s hospital, and who is much in demand for his clinical and research work across the African continent and also in Europe and America. The provincial government mandates retirement at age sixty-five.

Mandatory retirement has always been in place in the province, although it has acquired new meaning under the current constitution. In the past it was about transitioning the aging into the easy comfort of retirement as their minds and bodies supposedly declined. Now it is also about the dictates of transformation. My friend is well aware that his forced retirement is meant ideally to shift leadership to younger people who would have been formerly excluded by the old regime on account of race. Dr. Kildare knows this is a central demand of his democratizing society.

Life expectancies have dramatically improved over the past thirty years and thanks to the very modern medicine Dr. Kildare practices, physicians like him routinely hit their stride in their sixties, thanks to decades of clinical experience and long engagement with the complexities of research. Since it is an equally deep imperative of transformation that the resources of South Africa be opened to all, including and especially its medical care, Dr. Kildare’s forced retirement at the height of his powers is a tiny but decisive crippling of the public good.

And so there is a conflict between two equally central goals of transformation: First the demand that Dr. Kildare be retired so his job can be opened to a younger person, ideally of colour. Second the demand that he not retire so that his long and vital experience is not lost to the public good. And it seems that neither the university nor the government are able to adequately grapple with this conflict of interests. Mandatory retirement is subjecting universities to a continual shedding of the very publically minded talent that a knowledge-driven but also socially conscious university is meant to prize and cultivate.

Ironically forced retirement for physicians tends to drive them into private medicine where they can earn many times the salary they currently get by restricting their services to the one percent (fifteen percent actually but who’s counting). Their services switch from the public to the private good.

There is no easy way to negotiate between such contradictory transformational imperatives. The only route is through democratic conversation, intellectual flexibility, and innovative law and regulation. It is for this reason that Article 39 of the Constitution proves ever central. It mandates that each and every decision of the Constitutional Court be made out of respect for the spirit of the constitution as a whole, and does so, I believe, partly out of recognition that transformation is a messy business, with multiple demands that cannot easily be brought into alignment.

One must add a third imperative to the mix: the rights of aging persons. Why should a person at age sixty-five not have the right to choose when they’ll stop working, while a younger person of age thirty-two does have that right? Until recently prejudice pinpointed the elderly as food past its sell-by date that should be tossed into the wastebasket, meaning they should take up gardening or sit in front of the TV all day. Is this really how South Africa wishes to conceive of, and treat its aging populations? The idea is hardly a traditionally African one, since African societies widely value age.

To say that my friend is white and privileged and therefore has had opportunity enough before being kicked into retirement is to treat the public seriousness of his lifelong effort with unthinking contempt, and should be responded to with thoughtful contempt.

A more flexible system of evaluating the competencies, necessities and demands of all persons, including the aging, needs to be put in place by provincial governments, universities and all other institutions: one that takes into account the multiplicity of goals all equally central to transformation, in this case with respect to aging. Transformation requires a transformation in thinking, which first and foremost acknowledges the tension between its multiple directives and seeks to negotiate between them through open, public conversation. Another way to say this is that transformation is democratization, properly understood.

Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor at the University of Michigan and until recently has been an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town. During the 1990s he was Chair in Philosophy at what was then the University of Natal.