Building an ethical, capable state is child’s play but we look the other way

An interesting thing recently happened at a school I know of. One of the learners in a grade six class had mistakenly completed the wrong assignment for homework. The teacher in charge of the class gave the young man a tongue-lashing, using some questionable language in the presence of her young charges. As the humiliated young man stood with his head lowered, the shocked class listened in horror. 

An interesting thing happened in a state institution I know of recently. One of the managers had received the agenda for the next management meeting just a few hours before the scheduled meeting. Without prior warning, the agenda indicated that the manager was required to present a complex matter in the morning. He and his team tried but failed to get the presentation done overnight. 

When the meeting sat the next day, the manager requested that the matter be deferred to the agenda of the following week’s meeting in order to give the team time to submit the presentation. The boss singled the manager out for a tongue-lashing. 

The other colleagues present listened in silence, happy that somebody other than themselves was at the receiving end.

Back at the school, after the lesson, two of the learners decided that they were not going to keep silent about what they had witnessed. They went down to the principal’s office to report the incident. An investigation ensued, and the errant teacher was released from her contract of employment. 

Back at the state institution, the boss decided that he had had enough of the manager who asked for the extension of time. In his view, that manager had questioned his authority. He instituted an investigation into the manager and brought charges against him. The boss was both the chief witness and the charging officer in the disciplinary proceedings. He rounded up some witnesses to agree with his testimony. 

Nobody was willing to appear as a witness for the manager. The manager was dismissed from the institution.

The school incident became the subject of much discussion in our home. At first, my husband and I were not certain that the children had done the right thing. Children should be seen and not heard, after all. You see, we were raised and went to school in the townships in the 1980s and early 1990s. Our childhood had instilled in us strong and pervasive deference for authority mingled with fear. 

We were conditioned never to question those who wielded power over us. Concepts such as fairness and justice were not part of our concept of authority. We would never have spoken up for our classmates had we been in the same position. 

There was also the unwritten township rule — we did not turn in wrongdoers to the authorities, ever. My children on the other hand were convinced that the children who spoke up had done the right thing. They were adamant that they too would have spoken up.

I spent a lot of time pondering the actions of the brave children in this anecdote. This new generation has no fear of authority and they will not submit to injustice or silently overlook wrongdoing or bullying. If the children know what is the right thing to do and they do it, then what is wrong with us? 

Why are our institutions characterised by an institutional culture that can range from an overly deferential attitude towards authority, on the one hand, to a culture of silence, fear, and outright bullying on the other? 

It is this culture of deference that has enabled the capture of our state institutions and the wholesale looting that ensued. It is in the toxic boardroom meetings where yes-men and -women massage the egos of poor leaders. These leaders brook no dissent, ruling with authoritarian severity. 

In this atmosphere, there is no debate and discussion to sharpen and polish ideas — the solutions proposed are shallow and obvious. Most know that agreement with the highest power in the room is the only sensible course of action. To offer an opinion or a different possible solution is career suicide. So most keep silent out of sheer self-preservation. 

How can such an environment ever yield the creative solutions that we need to turn around this sinking ship called South Africa?

A few weeks ago, I was admitted into a group of remarkable people, the Whistleblowers for Positive Change. Like the children in the anecdote I related above, the whistleblowers were prepared to stand up for what they believed in. These men and women have stood up to corruption and abuse of power at great personal cost. They have endured harassment, occupational detriment, intimidation, surveillance, threats to personal safety, financial hardship, impacts on health, psychological damage and more as a result of their decision to do the right thing. 

They have had their lives turned upside down, their families affected and their careers ruined. 

I cannot explain the solidarity and comfort I have found in hearing their all-too-familiar stories. There is pain too. And anger. But most of all there is a sense of common purpose and resolve and an unwavering belief in our country and its potential. 

As a nation, we need to reflect on our relationship with power and our attitude to authority. We are staring into the abyss of a failed state. The responsibility to arrest the decline lies with all of us. In every school, at every workplace, in every community, and most importantly in every state institution, the ability to transform our institutional culture lies with all of us. 

It lies in standing up for someone who is being subjected to injustice. It lies in speaking up where wrongs are being committed in front of us. We do not have the luxury of cynicism or apathy. The time for looking the other way has long passed. Stand Up. Speak Up. 

Even the children know what is the right thing to do and they are not afraid to do it.

Gabriella La Foy is writing in her personal capacity. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian

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Gabriella La Foy
Gabriella La Foy is the deputy director general in the department of justice and constitutional development

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