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30 Apr 2015 00:00
Panel members at Unisa's Open Discourse Series: Professor Sabelo Ndlovu, Advocate George Bizos, Matthews Phosa, and Dr Siphamandla Zondi. (Photo: Johann Barnard)
A different perspective on the xenophobic violence sweeping across the country was given last week when human rights lawyer advocate George Bizos addressed the issue in the context of South Africa’s “ethical barometer”.
He was the keynote speaker at Unisa’s Open Discourse Series, held to discuss the country’s ethical barometer 20 years into democracy. The event was hosted at the University of South Africa in conjunction with the Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum on Thursday April 23.
Bizos expressed his bewilderment at the xenophobic attacks, declaring the violence against foreign nationals “unfathomable” and describing it as “unimaginable cruelty to our brothers and sisters from other parts of the continent”.
He suggested that even the term “xenophobia” was misplaced, as the events of the past weeks pointed more to hatred of than a fear of foreigners.
“President Mandela would have been ashamed of what we are seeing in the country today. However, even amidst the horrors of these attacks, we see glimmers of hope,” he said. “The people standing up and speaking out against the violence, in some instances at possible risk to their own safety, do so for no other reason than because that is what their ethical barometer tells them is the right thing to do.”
It is no surprise that Bizos sets his moral compass according to provisions in the country’s Constitution.
“For me, the Constitution remains a beacon that offers a guide for the behaviour that is expected of us. And while offering us protection, the Constitution also expects a great deal from us — not just from the state, but from every individual in this country.”
He illustrated the relevance of this guiding document in relation to current events when answering a question from the audience on the ethics of clinging to colonial-era figures such as Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger.
As much animosity as soul-searching has been engendered in the last few weeks surrounding the statues of these figures, which signify the dark past of South Africa.
The constitutional framework, he said, provides for the protection of people’s heritage in Sections 30 and 31, while Section 83 obligates the president to create and maintain unity among all the people of this country.
“I believe that whatever our personal feelings may be, irrespective of age, we owe it to ourselves to be true to the Constitution.”
He said the general atmosphere of discontentment that has led to the attacks on foreigners and historical figures demands that we take action, to address the inequalities that 20 years of democracy have not eradicated.
“We simply cannot proceed to ignore the suffering of so many of our people that continues to take place well into our constitutional democracy. I think this begins first and foremost with government. We, as a country, have been waiting for strong leadership to come to the fore and give us guidance in these difficult times. We are waiting for our leaders, in all levels of government, to tell us what plans are in place to effectively combat poverty and shortages in healthcare, housing, education — and then to implement these plans.
“We are waiting for our leaders to say that they will not stand for corruption and mismanagement, and that they will not tolerate irresponsible government actions any longer. We are waiting for our leaders to give us these reassurances, and then to make good on them. But we are still waiting,” he said.
His call is not a new refrain, and was echoed by Mathews Phosa, Chairman of the Unisa Council. He condemned the rampant corruption endemic in the public sector, and said it would continue unless drastic action was taken.
“The most corrupt [people] condemn corruption. And the problem is they will never fight it — their noise is a smokescreen. I think South Africans must agree that a lot of people are corrupt. That is where we are with our ethical barometer: we have reached a point we didn’t think we would reach so quickly,” he said.
He laid part of the blame for these ills on the practice of appointing people to senior positions without the necessary skills. He used the example of the problems at parastatals such as the National Prosecuting Authority, SAA, SABC, the Post Office and Eskom to justify this point.
“We must address the issue of skills. The best South Africans must represent us in Parliament; not because they can debate, but because they are the best South Africans. We have to ensure there is proper, qualified leadership,” he said.
“We deserve that as a nation, we deserve a proper public service that is not guided by fear of defying [corrupt] politicians. We must engender ethics in government — it is very sad when you see a municipality issue a tender and immediately the mayor sees a cut for himself.”
Phosa suggested that strong leadership would nullify these practices, not only by keeping a check on peers, but also by giving the country a moral compass by which to steer.
He added that the responsibility to arrest this decline rested on the shoulders of all South Africans, who should not be fearful of speaking out against corruption.
“South Africans don’t want to speak out because those who do are very quickly marginalised. I think you must be prepared to pay that price for the sake of society. The whole history of humankind has been characterised by people who were prepared to sacrifice and die for the truth. Those [people] were the catalysts for change. We need robust engagement on these issues.”
Part of that debate, it was suggested, was also to interrogate the role of the private sector in abetting public servants who benefit from corrupt practices.
Bizos took up this point, saying that business had a real role to play that extends beyond fighting corruption and contributing to raising the country’s ethical barometer.
“The corporate sector has a responsibility, I believe, to use the immense resources at its disposal to be an instrument of change for the better,” he said. “It has a responsibility to its employees; it has a responsibility to the communities that are directly affected by its work; but I believe it also has a responsibility more broadly to South Africa to act ethically and proactively to assist the state to achieve the rights contained in our Constitution.
“And then, of course, there is a role for each of us as individuals to play. More than ever, we need an active citizenry to challenge the status quo and hold those in power to account. Irresponsible statements and actions from our leaders must not be countenanced.
“We must act in accordance with our ethical barometers to expose wrongdoing, seek accountability, and play our part to help to make the lives of others in this country better.”
The last word on the matter fell to Dr Siphamandla Zondi, director at the Institute for Global Dialogue at Unisa, who suggested that identifying solutions to the question of an ethical barometer lay with listening to the victims of poverty.
“The best people to design a solution are the people on the margins who live with the crisis of [slow] progress. Our first duty is to listen to the victims of poverty, and to listen means to hear, to be seen, to understand and to identify,” he said.
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