As SA continues to ponder solutions to some of its greatest challenges, we have to ask why – despite our constitutional order, well-conceived institutions and great policies – we continue to fail in many of our endeavours.
We have to understand why poorer countries are able to produce better results in education with far fewer resources.
An ingredient is missing, and in my view it is the individual. It is at the individual that we have to focus the most concerted effort if we are to successfully change the way the nation conducts itself.
This will not be easy.
Apart from humans naturally finding strength in numbers, it is when those numbers are made up of individuals of good standing that the whole is able to achieve game-changing social influence. It also takes an individual of outstanding character who is able to inspire otherwise reluctant fellow human beings to join the effort to improve society. Because no one is born with a mark of greatness, it is necessary that an attempt is made to shape every young person to believe they can be an unstoppable force for greater social good.
We have also become accustomed to a hazy concept called “collective leadership”.
In its most dishonest conception, it is suggested that outstanding personal qualities are totally irrelevant for strong leadership. It is also used to shield the errant from taking full responsibility for their actions.
It insists that leadership is easy because leaders do not make their own decisions – they carry out only the wishes of the collective. In effect, they are mere messengers with hardly any leadership vision of their own.
I believe this theory is false.
However, it is at the level of the individual that a sense of responsibility is cultivated. From birth we are taught to take responsibility for our actions even if we were part of a group. This is correct because it remains an individual decision whether or not to support the purpose for which a group is formed. It is also the individual who decides to support or oppose the suggested resolution of a group to which they belong, and walk away if such decisions are incongruent with deeply held personal principles.
What kind of individual do we need to repair our damaged social and political fabric? How can we restore individual responsibility to our public life?
We need an individual who will take as much responsibility for the fate of this country as those who govern it. It must be possible that an increasing number of citizens do not tolerate friends who bribe traffic officers or steal tax money by claiming social grants they do not deserve. We must cultivate an individual who has no fear of authority but demonstrates the kind of respect that authority deserves.
This is so they may stand up to those authorities when they no longer act in the public interest.
We must entrench what is taught in the home – that our actions, whether positive or negative, remain our own, and we accept the consequences thereof. It must also be in the home that children are taught that as individuals they have the potential to have an impact on society which is so profound that it can change our way of life. It must be a childhood where the generation and propagation of fresh ideas is encouraged rather than shunned in the name of tradition and protocol. Our children must be taught to paint their future in the stars, free of limitations of those who believe they are in control of society’s destiny.
Our schooling system must actively encourage and reward individual initiative, ethical conduct and care for others. While not every attribute can receive academic reward, there are other recognition systems in schools which are meant to mould the young to exhibit desirable behaviour.
The only weakness in the system is that it tends to discourage mavericks who push boundaries. I propose that when this is done out of youthful exuberance and in the pursuit of greater knowledge, it must be encouraged.
In the words of the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “education in citizenship, if it is wise, can retain what is best in individual culture. But if it is in anyway short-sighted, it will stunt the individual in order to make him a tool of government.”
The reality is that our country’s individual has become deficient.
Encouraging the formation of a strong, ethical and driven individual with a generous public spirit is essential if we are to have any hope of cleaning the rot that permeates our society.
Institutions of democracy like the justice system, parliament, political parties and others are populated by individuals.
The personal weaknesses of individuals who lead powerful institutions are soon reflected in how those institutions conduct their work.
Try as we might, it would be difficult to persuade many South Africans that the stature of the Public Protector’s office is unrelated to the personal ethos of the incumbent. It was not so long ago that the same institution was headed by a different individual who is not remembered for injecting vigour into its work.
We must, therefore, pay particular attention to the quality of individual in whose hands we entrust the running of different organisations and institutions. The personal ethos of an individual does not change to suit the standing of the institution they lead – the opposite happens.
The sight of a senior company official, politician or civil servant appearing in court for breaking public trust will be rare if we demand evidence of good ethical standing before we select them.
That means shareholders must no longer look away while corporate greed takes root. Party political members must be intolerant of racism, corruption and the re-emerging cancer that is tribalism.
The construction and entrenchment of a new individual to permeate all sectors of our society might be the only hope we have against all the ills we blame only on politicians. The formation of that individual will be ignited by credible, charismatic leadership. Even that will require individual attributes. All we need to start the individual revolution is for good citizens to take a personal decision to step up and be counted in service to the Republic.
l Songezo Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group