A neglected moral vision

Apartheid was the major South African manifestation of human evil, exclusion, racism and gender discrimination of the past century. Only bigots and racists would disagree.

The fierce struggle to combat apartheid in the years before its demise and in the ongoing fight against its residual effects sometimes, however, loses sight of the fact that the root causes of apartheid evil lay deeper than its manifestation.

The result is that human greed, exclusion and unbridled power continue to manifest themselves in crude as well as subtle and deceptive ways.
The affirmation of reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and a willingness to allow people to pursue their own self-interests is sometimes the mask behind which different forms of exclusion and exploitation continue to lurk.

The values of our Constitution are widely celebrated and are there to be appropriated into the South African political and social ethos. This has not always happened. The greed of privilege is aggressively present in the old and newly enriched classes in cities, villages and the deep rural areas.

A recent visit to Vryburg in North West province, for example, presented me with a picture of excessive opulence cheek by jowl with poverty and exclusion—divided largely along racial lines. Young white males swagger in the streets with holstered guns on display. Black learners are relegated to schools that barely function, in order to allow white learners to pursue the privileges that their parents demand. The main high school consists of an “Afrikaans school” that is essentially white, and an “English school” that is black, with a smaller “whites only” school a few blocks away.

The cynicism of the naked racism displayed by several young whites at the University of the Free State is thankfully condemned by Afrikaans- and English-speaking leaders alike, but reminds us that apartheid is unlikely to simply wither away as an older generation makes way for the new.

The extent of self-enrichment and the tolerance of apparent corruption by some in government, in the police service and the broader civil service, in turn, suggests that the greed, opportunism and abuse of the law that was so evident in the apartheid regime has not been adequately addressed. The mere fact that those allegedly involved in corruption and crime are dealt with in a mealy-mouthed manner sends shock waves through the nation.

In brief, the expectation that the “soft revolution”, underpinned by reconciliation, would provide the incentive to change has not worked too well. Whites have not responded to the magnanimity of a political settlement that was intended to draw all South Africans into a new order characterised by tolerance, understanding, mutual respect and greater levels of material and social equity. Not all of the new political elite have, in turn, embraced a new set of morals in executing their responsibility in the government and elsewhere.

South African “exceptionalism” is a misconception. The promise of inclusivity and new levels of equity in several other African states that have since collapsed into factionalism and conflict haunt our future. We tell ourselves we are different—and in many ways we are. Our economic and political infrastructure provides us with the opportunity to succeed where others have failed, although experience shows that a positive outcome requires vigilance and perseverance.

Power can be a hell of a thing once it gets out of hand and history shows that even the best of leaders are vulnerable to its bloody claws. It is a slippery slope that often is not recognised until it happens.

The optimistic reading of events that shape the present political debate is that issues like those referred to previously are in the public domain, debated in the media, and that the institutions of government are being required to face them. “Our democracy is only 14 years old!” we tell ourselves. We are facing huge challenges and in several areas we are doing exceptionally well. Yet clearly more is required:

  • Our constitutional values need to be enforced at all levels of government. To beat the already beaten horse, crime, corruption and human abuse of any kind need to be dealt with. Those (the powerful, powerless, rich and poor) who violate the law need to know that they will be apprehended and face the consequences of their behaviour.

  • The poorest of the poor need to know that their socio-economic rights, as enshrined in the Constitution, will be upheld and promoted. This has major implications for budgetary planning, service delivery and above all the education and training of young South Africans to equip them for a productive life in a functioning economy.

  • South Africans of all colours and creeds need to know that South Africa is not only a home for all but a home within which those who “head” this home welcome not only all those who choose to live in it, but also those who feel vulnerable and excluded.
Govan Mbeki suggested to me in a conversation shortly before his death that “having and belonging” are the key ingredients to nation-building in South Africa and elsewhere. This, he emphasised, requires a level of statecraft involving both challenge and invitation.

The challenge involves dealing creatively and in a proactive manner with issues of political and economic exclusion that for historic and structural reasons exclude particular groups from sharing in the political decision-making and economic benefits of society. The invitation is to remind people that “the ultimate goal of the South African transition is a better life for all its children. Blacks and whites need to know they are all recognised as children of the soil, provided this is where they choose to plant their roots.”

At the heart of the challenge that we as a nation face are values enshrined in our Constitution that affirm the need for a holistic form of justice that addresses crime and corruption as well as the social and economic rights of all South Africans. The Constitution also stresses reconciliation and the values of ubuntu that affirm human dignity and participation by all members of the South African family.

The question is how to enable society to internalise these values, ensuring a creative balance between justice and reconciliation. The state-driven Moral Regeneration Movement and the proposed school pledge signals the recognition by government of the need for moral renewal. Religious leaders and others speak of the need for a spiritual awakening as a basis for moral renewal.

We need all the help we can get. Right now, however, a shift of the pendulum towards both retributive and restorative justice is perhaps the biggest contribution that the state can make to a realistic reconciliation process and moral renewal. Crudely stated, the present generation may need to experience more of the stick of justice to ensure that future generations enjoy the carrot of reconciliation.

Charles Villa-Vicencio is the executive consultant at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

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