How can we teach the values of “protecting the fatherless” when a majority of children live with single moms? asks the writer. Picture: Pixabay

Democracy is a great thing, and most welcome in South Africa. Of course, there are different models of democracy and there is still some tweaking to be done on our Constitution.

For example, the Slabbert Commission report recommended that only half of the seats in the National Assembly remain under “cadre deployment” or “the PR system” (i.e. proportional representation). It went on to recommend that the other half of the seats be filled by Representatives elected directly by the electorate (aka the voters). This was excellent advice, ignored by the Zumites.

In some settings, the ground is more fertile for democracy than in others. And it has taken a huge struggle to get it to take root deeply.

In Greece, the experiment of Solon of Athens did not last very long. Corruption and patronage set in. Sound familiar?

In Rome, democracy became so corrupt that rich people could buy a seat in the Senate. Eventually, Julius Caesar demolished it and replaced it with despotism. He was the first emperor, his son was the second and his grandson the third. A royal family or a family business?

In England, the tug-of-war between Kings and Parliament went on for centuries.  Push came to shove in a Civil War when an inter-regnum replaced the monarchy. But the British people were not comfortable in a Republic, so royalty was brought back. But when a king again dared to suppress parliament, a relative of his from Holland was invited to invade and remove him. William of Orange was welcomed in London as the conqueror and offered the crown. He had the good sense to decline it – pending the recall of parliament and its approval.  This rapprochement became an unwritten Constitution.

In America, the melting pot of settlers opted to scrap the monarchy and establish a Republic. This took a revolution. America re-modelled democracy and became a vision of states joining into a broader alliance (the United States eventually inspired the United Nations).

In France, another revolution rejected the monarchy and replaced it with Democracy (defined it that instance as freedom, equality and justice).

The look and feel of democracy in South Africa evolved over time, but finally reached the stage of a Constitution with free and fair elections.

In all of these settings, there were two ingredients that helped democracy to take hold and function smoothly. These are first the family, and second, faith or religion. Without these two ingredients, the success formula for a constitutional democracy would not have worked. 

In South Africa, both these foundation institutions are now under pressure. The foundations are cracking and this could explain why democracy was able to be “captured” by an un-elected gang.

The symbiosis of the Family and Democracy is explained by article 23.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states in its preamble: 

Convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities in the community.

The provisions of these documents can only be described as “pro-family”. They express an age-old philosophical tradition – that it is in the public interest to support and protect the Family. This assumption has developed out of the commonly-held belief of democratic societies throughout history that the family is the basic building block of society.

Ironically, families are non-democratic. Only in this exceptional environment – where un-elected parents make the decisions on behalf of their members – can children be reared to learn the values and beliefs that make good, solid citizens of their country. The State does not do this.

But when the State fails to create the conditions for healthy family life, then it is shooting itself in the foot. For example, the long delays in passing the Domestic Partnerships Bill. South Africa is exceptional among democracies in not recognizing “common law marriages”. To the Marriages Act was added the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act – to put Lobola-based marriages on a par with "white weddings".  

Then came a relatively recent law to even allow same-sex marriages – the Civil Unions Act. But two people who live together for many years are not yet regarded as “married” by the law – pending the Domestic Partnership Bill which has been languishing in parliament for too long. Women in such relationships do not enjoy equal rights. As a result, more children are reared these days by mothers than by two parents.

How can we teach the values of “protecting the fatherless” when a majority of children live with single moms? Gender activism's response in this respect can be seen as undermining the institution of marriage. How can we chuckle about “blessees” when the biggest health risk at the epicentre of the AIDS pandemic is “multiple sexual partners”? Truvada is not the answer to that – fidelity is.

Second, the French traveller Alexis de Tocqueville observed democracy in America taking root in its first century. Please note that this was before the slaves were freed, before women got the vote, and long before the rights of LGBTI+ were ever secured. But he was profound (in 1835) in making the link between religion and democracy. They are distinct, but they need one another: the revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws… Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. 

Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving and forbids them to commit, what is rash and unjust.

He went on: Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic which they set forth in glowing colours than in the monarchy which they attack; it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. 

We are so fortunate in South Africa that both the whites and the blacks are so religious. We are so fortunate also to have diverse religions, even though one is predominant. Democratic revolutions guarantee for their citizens' freedom of religion. Not freedom from religion!

Our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples in South Africa play a vital role in growing democracy.  For they all promote equality, accountability, transparency and integrity.  We live in an age when confession is being challenged by blame-shifting as the norm.  

Deception is so common that senior leaders lie through their teeth – in parliament and even in court. The term “fake news” confuses us because the media should be an independent and impartial cross-check on governance. If you can't trust the media, who can you trust?  

We cannot even trust some pastors who are preying on their congregation, not praying for them. In this kind of moral meltdown, we need all religions to preach Justice and to stand firm on the common values of the Axial Age.

Evil no longer takes the form of graven images, or of heresies, or even of violent ideologies. It is now liquid, and we are up to our ankles in it. Soon it will be up to our knees if we don’t champion our family and faith foundations. First things first.

* Stephens is Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.