The cover of the 2021 HSRC State of the Nation review subtitled Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New directions
The cover of the 2021 HSRC State of the Nation review subtitled Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New directions

Call for ’ethics of care’ to deal with social crisis in SA

By Valerie Boje Time of article published Jul 26, 2021

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COVID-19 and the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng came into sharp focus during the launch of the HSRC’s 2021 “state of the nation” review this week.

Despite being researched before the current crisis, the flagship publication, Ethics, Politics, Inequality: New Directions, is a timely tome and contributors who spoke during a webinar were forthright in their comments on the need for ethical leadership.

The review is edited by Professor Crain Soudien, former chief executive of the HSRC; Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean: Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria; and Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller, Head of the HSRC’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division.

Reddy - who asked for a minute’s silent reflection before proceedings began - spoke of a nation broken by the profound impact of Covid-19 and the “epic” challenges facing the country following violence and looting which has led to the loss of more than 300 lives, the arrest of thousands and devastation to around 40 000 businesses and schools.

Keynote speaker Buti Manamela, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, highlighted the importance of “ethical care and accountability” and the failures that result when this disposition is ignored.

Striking mineworkers sit on a rocky outcropping near Lonmin Platinum Mine, Marikana, during the unrest of August 2012. Picture: AP Photo/Denis Farrell

Aside from the current challenges of the pandemic and unrest, he cited the Marikana conflict of 2012 - in which 34 miners were killed in a brutal show of force by police - and the Life Esidimeni tragedy of 2016. Esidimeni is in the news because of the inquest now under way into the deaths of 144 mental health patients moved by the Gauteng provincial government from Life Esidimeni to ill-equipped NGOs.

Looters walk away with items taken from the Game Warehouse in Durban during a week of violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng this month. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

In response to the recent upheavals in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the question is “what is underlying this unrest and what brought people to the point of unbridled looting and destroying infrastructure”, said Manamela.

He said the state of the nation report provides valuable insight into the ethics of care that is required to help South Africa deal with “a feeling of precariousness” and provide effective interventions in countering the triple challenge of inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Mabel Sithole, of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, co-authored a chapter with Richard Calland, associate professor at UCT, on presidential leadership and accountability - from President Nelson Mandela to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

She told the webinar that at every level of society, citizens looked to leaders not only for their ability to deliver on policy, but their “resilience, compassion and ability to make decisions in a moment of crisis”.

She referred to examples of model servant leadership globally and said that “at this time, like no other in our democratic dispensation, our nation is confronted with multiple ethical and policy dilemmas that have tested the strength of our institutions”.

From health-care to education and the recent wave of unrest, South Africa has been “like George Floyd on the floor in the US”. The traumatic way in which Floyd died (with a policeman’s knee on his neck during an arrest) was a reflection of the suffering of people in South Africa as a result of social injustice, Sithole said.

Social injustice stemmed from the country’s historical legacy of structural inequality and racism, multiple shocks to the economy, a lack of accountable leadership, weakened institutions and the challenges of corruption and state capture, “as has been seen again and again from testimonies at the Zondo Commission”.

“What we have seen in the last week shows us we are at a breaking point” … the fault lines in our society around race, ideology and other differences have been exposed. Public trust has declined and how President Ramaphosa handles these fault lines, addresses social inequality and provides ethical leadership driven by moral beliefs and values of care were crucial.

“In this dark time, Mandela’s legacy reminds us what a commitment to constitutional fidelity, social cohesion, dialogue and compassion can do to avoid the abyss,” she said.

Speaking about the right to education, Dr Andrea Juan, who co-authored with Prof Soudien and Jaqueline Harvey, said although there were “hundreds of pieces of education legislation” and a goal of universal access to education, the education system remained in a state of crisis.

Dr Mzikazi Nduna, an associate professor at Wits, said while there was consensus that the right to health is a basic human right, there was no consensus that providing good quality health for all is an urgent responsibility.

Her research, co-authored by Dr Sibisiso Mkwanazi of the University of Johannesburg, raises concerns about the lack of urgency in addressing access to good quality health care for all.

“If ethical leadership and ethical decision-making was urgent in SA, we would not have a society that allows for the provision of differentiated health services or one which continues to debate the provision of universal health care for all,” she told the webinar.

“An ethics of care, coupled with bold decision making, is needed to improve the state of South Africa’s health care,” she said.

Other perspectives by well-known academics, researchers and contributors to public debate and which can improve the “state of the nation” include minimum requirements for a life of dignity, food, anti-immigrant violence and vigilantism, cultures of sexualities and gender, and South Africa in the global world.

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