This week I exposed myself to a new cultural experience by attending a Catholic Church ceremony in Cape Town to honour 50 years of marriage of our close friends, old Progressive Federal Party (PFP) stalwarts, Peter and Audrey Soal.
I am not a Christian but I do believe that every religion carries the same message if we care to look beyond theology. The sermon was simple but powerful and conducted with such grace by the former brother-in-law of Tokyo Sexwale, Rev Deacon Tony van Vuuren. He spoke about the typical values that mould relationships among people, individually and more widely in society as a whole. Those who genuinely want to reach spiritual heights and live in communion with God don’t promote themselves in regard to social status because according to the gospel: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the person who humbles himself will be exalted.”
He observes that no matter what the period of history, or whatever kind of society or culture we might look at, we would find that human beings like to create pecking-orders: and doubtless we can all think of our own examples, either from the places where we work, or from some group or organisation that we belong to, of all the ways that communities establish different ranks or positions for its members.
My mind wandered to the behaviour of our honourable members of Parliament and other dignatories who grace every function with their desire for superior status and displaying a need to be above others.
In conducting themselves in this way they diminish other people and enhance their own importance. Why else would some politicians book themselves into the best hotels at government expense and yet close their eyes to the squatter camps all around them? Why else would the falsely empowered eat sushi and drink Moet and Chandon like tap water while denying the poor their daily bread and access to affordable education and health care?
Our Rev Deacon observes that it is also true to say that, in terms of moral character, an exalted or superior social status doesn’t necessarily lead to strength of character; it often panders to the moral and spiritual weaknesses of our nature. What actually happens very often is that, behind the swagger and the air of success, we can become emotionally dependent on being able to issue orders and on being treated in a reverent way. We lose an accurate sense of perspective about ourselves and we start to believe our own fictions.
In this regard the fall from grace of communications minister Dina Pule is a case in point. Once described as one of the strongest leaders in the country with a deep sense of duty to her fellow citizens and a strong commitment to service delivery, she lost her moral ground when she abused her position to benefit her boyfriend by taking him – at taxpayers’ expense – on overseas holidays. She then lied to Parliament and later compounded her transgressions by allegedly sending death threats to Ben Turok, the co chair of the parliamentary ethics committee, and the committee registrar Fazela Mahomed.
In his wisdom President Jacob Zuma effectively dismissed her, sending out the right message. However, there were other disturbing features of this whole debacle and that is that her colleagues in the ANC seemed to have viewed her as a victim rather than a transgressor.
They felt sorry for her and openly showed a display of solidarity for the wrong reasons. Some went even further by “losing” documents in an apparent bid to protect her, and others pulled out the culture (and hence the race) card to obfuscate the seriousness of her behaviour.
Unfazed by this predictable behaviour, Turok claimed that three witnesses were subjected to bullying to try to get them to reverse their testimony. He also criticised senior officials within the department of communications for collusion with the minister by hiding information and forging documents. Furthermore, some officials were unhelpful and gave contradictory evidence on how trips were organised, thus making it difficult to ascertain the full extent of Pule’s abuses.
There are many Dina Pules in the government today it seems and the fight for clean government is becoming more and more difficult. Stealing from government coffers and abusing government funds warrants more than a public apology.
Oh no, when grown men and women are trusted with duties to build a nation, run a country and manage public funds, they are expected to do so on behalf of all the citizens of that country. Money allocated to a government department is not their own. By all means spend your salaries on clothes at Khanyi Dhlomo’s boutiques, Jimmy Choo shoes, Lamborghinis or other items of shallow opulence, but not at the expense of a developing country like ours. For this behaviour spells disloyalty to our country. When we live for the moment with no interest in building a legacy we become nothing more than mindless consumers.
When this happens, says our Rev Deacon van Vuuren, that power of superiority is taken away from us; that is when our spiritual underdevelopment gets exposed. We have to confront the fact that we are not invincible and we are just ordinary like everyone else. And sometimes that causes one to break down completely; illustrating the fact that glorification is always misleading – it panders to the weaknesses in our nature rather than the strengths.
*Dr Devi Rajab is a psychologist, academic and author.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.