Anxious parents watch their children start school. Poverty often has the effect of having them relinquish control where the prospect of finances are concerned. Picture: Oupa Mokoena
Cornelius Castoriadis, as cited by Bauman Zygmut, in his paper, Pedagogy of the Depressed: Beyond the New Politics of Cynicism, points out that “The problem with our civilisation is that it has stopped questioning itself. No society which forgets the art of asking questions or allows this art to fall into disuse can count on finding answers to the problems that beset it - certainly not before it is too late and the answers, however correct, have become irrelevant.”

Castoriadis’s observation is best exemplified by the conspicuous lack of robust public discourse on the moral decay that is bedevilling South African society.

The feeling of cynicism and indifference that has engulfed the public is best illustrated by the absence of widespread debate on the social ills that continue to beset our country.

Society has stopped questioning itself - and this does not augur well for our democracy. South Africa is fast spiralling out of control, morally speaking, and if something drastic is not done to curb this curse, the future looks bleak.

The moral repugnance that South Africa is experiencing is perhaps best captured by the latest spate of horrendous rape and slayings of women. It would be tedious to produce a list of the social ills that plague our society.

However, abuse of women and children, teenage pregnancy and other social ills are all examples of the moral decadence which is becoming commonplace.

Each time one opens a newspaper, the pages are replete with dastardly and despicable acts of human cruelty and moral paralysis at its worst. Indeed, South Africa has an abnormal record when it comes to violence against women. A very huge percentage of women experience intimate-partner violence.

Perhaps the moral quandary in which South African society finds itself is similar to what Myron H Wahls, a judge of the Michigan Appellate Court, observed about America in his address, “The Moral Decay of America”.

According to Wahls, America needs “a rebirth of morality, for clearly we have managed to become a society morally confused, morally ambivalent and morally bankrupt. We have no clear and decisive sense of what is fundamentally wrong and what is fundamentally right. The nation’s conscience has become muted, or at best, ambivalent.”

This seems equally true about South African society, which finds itself in a similar state of moral malaise.

There is seriously something wrong about the psyche of our nation, and it urgently needs healing. Perhaps Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explains the situation better when he points out: “The worst crime that can be laid at the door of the white man is not our economic, social and political exploitation, however reprehensible that might be, no, it is that his policy succeeded in filling most of us with self-disgust and self-hatred.”

My take is that, in the whole scheme of things, the people who are to a large extent responsible for our moral decay, are parents. They need to ask themselves some difficult and soul-searching questions. There is a breakdown of family values and this, to a large extent, is attributed to parents.

A sizeable number of parents have abdicated their responsibilities of parenting. It is the job of parents to teach their children about the ills of society so that when they grow up they can make good choices.

Girls, in the full gaze of their parents, leave home after sunset to go to nightclubs wearing skimpy dresses, and come back during the wee hours of the morning. Why do parents allow this, knowing full well that we live in a depraved society? How does a parent sleep peacefully when his child is out partying and drinking whiskies that cost enough to, over time, add up to a deposit for a car?

What do parents say when their school-going daughters wear Versace and Louis Vuitton-labelled clothes and carry bags that cost enough to buy a townhouse? Why do parents turn a blind eye to something they know to be morally wrong? Why do parents turn a blind eye when their university-going daughters suddenly move out of university residences and move into expensive townhouses or flats not paid for by them?

As if that is not enough, why do parents ululate when their daughters suddenly arrive home driving a Mini Cooper when it is generally known that they are neither working nor self-employed? Who do parents think finance the opulent lifestyles of their daughters?

These financial benefits come from “blessers” - typically, wealthy men who expect returns from young women who take advantage of their wealth.

The consequences of somebody who feels taken advantage of are too ghastly to contemplate.

I am not apportioning blame to all parents and daughters. There are parents who can afford to buy designer clothing and cars. The majority cannot. I am not attributing all the recent deaths of young girls to “blessers” and parental negligence, but these factors can be disregarded at the nation’s own peril.

In all probability, such relationships have a tendency to go awry, with the consequence most definitely death. This happens when the financial resources of the blesser suddenly run dry, and the girl dumps her benefactor and hooks up with a new one. It is to be expected that the broke “blesser” will feel aggrieved and taken advantage of by the one he once showered with fine things.

The MEC for Health in KZN, Dr Sbongiseni Dhlomo, should be commended for his campaign to make “blessers” unappealing.

The saddest thing is that, because of poverty, some parents feel they have no choice but to turn a blind eye to the bankolling of their daughters’ schooling and general welfare. Some even “bless” the “blessers” because they put food on the table.

I have seen young girls becoming involved in prostitution to put food on the table for themselves and their families, as well as to finance their education. The Fees Must Fall campaign should be understood and supported against this background. Access to education, especially by girls from downtrodden families, will make girls less dependent.

One would be mistaken to think that poverty is confined to African students only, black South Africans in particular. Research reveals that as many as one in three British students would be willing to exchange sex for free education. This is because of unmanageable debts as a result of rising tuition fees and living costs.

The research points out that at least 88% of students would be somewhat interested in having someone pay for their education, with 52% admitting they would be “very interested”. Of the 920 participants who answered the question: “How far would you have gone for free education supplied by someone who you were attracted to?”, 75% said they would have at least given up some of their time to a sugar daddy figure.

How I so wish the ever-gracious Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande, could introduce a feeding scheme at tertiary institutions. I have seen young girls and students in general going to bed having eaten a vetkoek or nothing. So when a “blesser” comes along, a young struggling girl would jump at the opportunity of being helped. Sadly, that help comes with a package: HIV-Aids and death.

Being involved in a “blessed” relationship is like a life sentence. There is neither parole nor clemency. The only recourse is when a “blesser” dies. For as long as he is still alive, even if he had stopped bankrolling the girl, she would, to his mind, remain his “property”.

If she tries to escape, it would lead to what the nation has been witnessing these days - the stomach-wrenching discovery of dead bodies of young girls.

Parents need to create platforms to actively and positively engage one another in matters of public concern. They need to create an environment where they can exchange ideas on how best to raise their children. I believe there is still a profound role that the church could play in helping to restore family values.

The conspicuous silence of the church in tackling this moral paralysis is deafening. The role of the church has diminished to the extent that it is failing to define what its mandate is.

What happened to the once vibrant church leaders who not only showed tenacity in challenging the apartheid system, but also risked their lives while pursuing a just cause?

It may well be that the profound dearth of the prophetic voice now experienced, is yet another reminder that the church is struggling to define itself in the post-1994 era. On the extent of violent crimes perpetrated against women, children and the elderly, the church has been mute.

Equally true and disappointing, on the manifestation of violation of human rights, responsible for all the ills in our society, the church has been reluctant to speak.

It is my belief that the church is still eminently placed to influence public opinion on matters affecting the nation.

One would like to believe that sooner or later, the church will regain its position and provide the moral leadership we so desperately need in our beloved country.

Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier, KZN. He writes in his personal capacity