‘The vilest of men rise to the greatest credit’

That so many in South Africa’s political fraternity expressed relief that the Constitutional Court’s findings on President Jacob Zuma “clarified” aspects of the Constitution and brought “welcome interpretation” of it should be deeply disturbing.

Our Constitution is arguably the easiest to read and to understand of any in the world; in that, it is one of the great achievements of the country, the society and the polity that came into being after apartheid. Clarity and simplicity denote real mastery of the topic at hand, not simplistic noncomprehension.

Given that, it seems not unreasonable to assume that factions of our political class have never read, or properly read, the Constitution. If they have, they are wilfully ignoring what it says and means. Whichever, both are frightening possibilities.

There are antidotes. Over the Workers’ Day weekend – on May Day itself, to be exact – I got pleasantly distracted by dipping into Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Political Economy, first published in the fifth volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie in November 1755. Among the many gems I was reacquainted with is:

“If our politicians were less blinded by their ambition, they would see how impossible it is for any establishment whatever to act in the spirit of its institution, unless it is guided in accordance with the law of duty; they would feel that the greatest support of public authority lies in the hearts of citizens, and that nothing can take the place of morality in the maintenance of government.”

The preromantic who made Romanticism possible, Rousseau made vast contributions to philosophy, artistic conceptions, political philosophy, psychology and education (such as his novel Émile, about his “ideal” and “progressive” upbringing and education for children).

As the notable literary historian Louis Cazamian wrote in 1955: “[H]e had much more of the future in him than the past, and … it is easy to recognise in him the source of the ideas of two centuries, down to the latest ‘philosophy of existence’.”

Rousseau believed in and advocated conscience and personal virtue. In the South Africa of 2016, we would do well to avoid the scenario he outlines with brutal directness and clinical foresight at another point in his discourse on political economy:

“The man who once gets the better of remorse will not shrink before punishments which are less severe, and less lasting, and from which there is at least the hope of escaping: whatever precautions are taken, those who only require impunity in order to do wrong will not fail to find means of eluding the law, and avoiding its penalties … The reward of virtue soon becomes that of robbery; the vilest of men rise to the greatest credit; the greater they are, the more despicable they become; their infamy appears even in their dignities, and their very honours dishonour them.

“If they buy the influence of the leaders or the protection of women, it is only that they may sell justice, duty, and the state in their turn: in the meantime, the people, feeling that its vices are not the first cause of its misfortunes, murmurs and complains that all its misfortunes come solely from those whom it pays to protect it from such things.”


I can hear Jean-Jacques’ faithful dog Sultan barking at the caravan of South Africa’s political circus as it trundles off to the next stop, the Supreme Court of Appeal. Thereafter, the Constitutional Court. The horror! The horror!

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.
Advertising

Two dead in new ANC KwaZulu-Natal killings

A Mtubatuba councillor and a Hammarsdale ANC Youth League leader were shot yesterday near their homes

Inside Facebook’s big bet on Africa

New undersea cables will massively increase bandwidth to the continent

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Walter Sisulu University wants to reprioritise R178-million that it stands to give back to treasury after failing to spend it
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

Senwes launches Agri Value Chain Food Umbrella

South African farmers can now help to feed the needy by donating part of their bumper maize crop to delivery number 418668

Ethics and internal financial controls add value to the public sector

National treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles

Lessons from South Korea for Africa’s development

'Leaders can push people through, through their vision and inspiration, based on their exemplary actions'