SA's ethical compass is defective

Moral Regeneration Movement chairperson Smangaliso Mkhatshwa. (Stephanie Oosthuizen)

Moral Regeneration Movement chairperson Smangaliso Mkhatshwa. (Stephanie Oosthuizen)

In the coming week, the Moral Regeneration Movement will finalise its programme for Moral Regeneration Month in July. It will also celebrate its 10th birthday. A week away ­– and the “movement” has yet to finalise its programme for the month.
All that is certain is that there will be  opening and closing ceremonies.

Meanwhile, in the real South Africa, the nation’s moral compass has apparently been stolen. On Monday, The Star led with the story of “Dikeledi”, a five-year-old girl from Mmamatsha in Limpopo, who had been raped on three different occasions by three men. During the arrest of one of the suspects, a relative of one of the accused called the girl “a slut who sleeps around with all sorts of men”, the report said.

In the late 1990s it was sexual violence, among other crimes, that prompted then-president Nelson Mandela to call for “a way for the leadership of all religions to come together to analyse the cause of this spiritual malaise and to find a way of tackling it” as a matter of urgency.

On the website satyagraha.org.za, which promotes the values of Mahatma Gandhi, Neeba Budhoo writes that, at a moral summit held in October 1998, Mandela expressed “marked disbelief at how difficult it would be to mobilise people around efforts to eradicate such problems”.

At that summit, writes Budhoo, a code of conduct for persons in ­positions of responsibility “was signed, but it is not known whether it was ­formally adopted”.

Issues of moral regeneration
In late 2001 “a moral panic in the media about levels of child rape and sexual violence revived interest in issues of moral regeneration”, wrote Janine Rauch in 2005 for the Institute for Security Studies.

The Moral Regeneration Movement was launched in 2002 as a government-funded nonprofit organisation. Despite a strong showing at the launch by the government, religious structures, nongovernmental organisations and even traditional structures, Rauch wrote, “officials in the department of arts and culture found ‘not much political support’ for the campaign and described the heads of national government departments as ‘not strongly on board’ for quite some time after the movement was launched”.

Seven years since that article’s publication, the lack of buy-in still seems to be prevalent. What is worse, administratively, the Moral Regeneration Movement seems to be its own worst enemy. In March 2010 Business Day reported that its books had never been audited and it thus could not account for the R22-million it had received since its inception.
Today, the organisation seems oblivious to the negative impact of its communication strategy. It has no website and its presence on social platforms is as absent as the nation’s moral compass.

During the furore over The Spear, Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, the movement’s chairperson, attached his name to a limp statement that sidestepped any reference to the actual content of Brett Murray’s Hail to the Thief II exhibition when what was needed was an honest engagement with the artist’s commentary.

Instead, Mkhatshwa suggested that the work was morally unacceptable and contributed to disrespect of the office of the president. In its staunch defence of Jacob Zuma, who was the first patron of the movement, it would seem that the code of conduct for persons in positions of responsibility was a distant memory.

Generally conservative
“African culture accords special respect for their leaders,” the statement said. “The Brett Murrays and Zapiros of this world must surely know that South African society is generally conservative.”

Perhaps this is the barrier to mass grassroots support for the movement: its conservative religious filter that seeks to defend politicians as leaders beyond critique rather than take to the streets in solidarity with the communities for whom service delivery has been a cruel, immoral joke.

The concept of “politics as morality in practice” is alien to South Africa, to paraphrase Mamphela Ramphele in Laying Ghosts to Rest.

By blindly propping up politicians, the Moral Regeneration Movement has come merely to mirror the nation’s moral demise as opposed to inspiring it towards its higher self.
But there are other factors that seem to render it in­effective. As much as it would like to downplay the fact, the damage of its association with Zuma has tainted it in the eyes of some members of the public.

At the movement’s offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, the former patron’s image is conspicuous by its absence among the spread of images that document its visual history. Mkhatshwa only chuckled when asked why.

Tangible achievements
Also, there is not much the movement can do to solve matters of national moral importance with a sense of urgency on a R4-million annual budget.

“The government has been giving us modest amounts in funding because it has to support so many causes,” said Mkhatshwa, before explaining that the charter of positive values — basically a list of ideals that took several years to finalise — was the movement’s crowning achievement. “If we had more resources, we would have achieved more.”

Mkhatshwa, a former ANC MP, rambled nebulously on for more than an hour during our interview. He was big on apologising for Zuma and the ANC, but short on concrete evidence of the movement’s achievements. He mentioned a “close relationship” with the Film and Publications Board, where “we want to find out how we can influence how they work, as film, print and art has a lot of influence … We consult with them in terms of decision-making to ensure that they promote films that are conducive to the moral health of the nation.”
The movement’s chief executive, Zandile Mdhladhla, was even more evasive. She only agreed to an interview once I was at her doorstep. But after my experience with Mkhatshwa, I was willing to settle for a list of written answers to my questions. By her own admission, one of the movement’s failures was to “keep the organisation on board as we are not a funding agent”.

Successes were not about tangible achievements, but about how the movement had “aligned” itself with municipalities and provinces, and had organised some conferences. These lines were littered with words such as “facilitate”, “mainstream”, “co-ordinate” and “converge”, which seemed to be shorthand for: “The country is sinking and, besides praying and calling for more stringent classification of cultural products, there’s nothing much we can do about it.”

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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