Sowing seeds for an Arab-like Spring in SA

File photo: Denis Farrell

File photo: Denis Farrell

Published Nov 13, 2016


It is unpardonable that our national fiscus has lost R35 billion to graft, writes Jeffrey Sehume.

It is estimated that on a yearly basis nearly 20 000 people are killed in South Africa even though our country is not involved in open armed conflict like Iraq or Libya.

Official statistics reveal that there are more 50 000 reported incidents of sexual offences against women and girl-children, a shameful figure which rivals that of India as rape world capitals.

The quality and output of the education system in the democratic era would make apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd smile.

Corruption in the public sector has become almost the new normal. Clearly we are not an honourable society. The online Macmillan dictionary associates an “honourable” person, institution and even society with the “morally good and deserving respect”. By this definition, South Africa is not honourable to its citizens, women, and schoolchildren. Rather, it can more appropriately be labelled as a country that is dishonest, immoral and unethical to its collective population, especially to its most vulnerable groups.

What then differentiates our country from China, Japan, Finland and other African countries, with far less resources than us? How can we refashion a society, leadership and citizen that would be morally good and deserving of respect?

Which ingredients do we possess where law enforcement agencies would be less burdened than they presently are, where our courts have replaced political processes to regulate behaviour, where citizens now resort to kangaroo courts, where communities burn schools in protest in the name of service delivery?

How can we cultivate a society where a public protector would not be deemed a moral hero simply for doing her mandated work, a situation whereby, figuratively, we congratulate a fish for swimming? Ancient and recent history offer some guidelines. In Babylon, 4 000 years ago, human behaviour and regulation of society was based on the Hammurabi code.

The code stated that: “If a builder builds a house for a man and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

In other words, morality carried direct consequences, brutal as they were. There was no room to manoeuvre using sophistry or courts to plead innocence.

If we applied this code to the bankers and financiers who caused the 2008 financial downturn, they would not have been rescued, using taxpayers’ money as was done in the first term of US President Barack Obama. Instead, the trillions spent on banks would have been better channelled to highly indebted, and condemned for the future, university students.

Since we live in a modern and civilised age, the code seems extreme and thus ethical conduct is left, for self-regulation or self-correction to use a popular local parlance, to individuals and institutions with varying results.

In Asian countries like Japan, self-regulation is mainly applied using culture.

To compensate for being dishon-ourable and bringing shame upon oneself and one’s family, party or institution, it is expected that a person resign. Or commit ritual suicide.

Shame and honour are two dialectical qualities, which mainly explains why, in some Asian countries, students are driven to succeed in school, employees are compelled to place company interests above individual interests, and leaders are required to practice the highest ethical standards.

This may also explain the public clamour for Africa to produce more leaders of the calibre of presidents Paul Kagame and John Magufuli - leaders who consciously model themselves on Asian sages like Lee Kuan Yew, who instilled a now entrenched culture of zero tolerance for corruption in Singapore.

Therefore, being honourable is not foreign to post-colonial Africa.

The continent has the potential, in its DNA, like Singapore (which incidentally shared Ghana’s development indicators after independence from Britain) to realise the Africa Rising narrative.

It is possible to instil a culture of being honourable in the schooling system by demanding teachers teach and pupils learn, civil servants practise voluntary Batho Pele principles, leaders to be accountable in both the public and private sectors, and with Job-like patience for taxi drivers to be encouraged to be courteous on the road.

How can this be done without reliance on bringing back the death penalty, resorting to sharia law, or repackaging the Hammurabi code? The first port of call for regulation of behaviour and actions begin within socialisation agencies such as the family, church, and school. When the family network breaks down, the individual members transfer their unregulated behav-iour and actions to society at large.

It is unpardonable that our national fiscus has lost R35 billion to graft. It is unforgivable since this money could have been allocated to addressing, for example, students’ #FeesMustFall demands.

It could have been allocated to reskill the estimated 3 million young people not in education, employment or training; rebuild the schools burnt in Vuwani or build decent toilets and provide girl-children with sanitary pads.

The practice of African humanism entailed in ubuntu should be promoted. This philosophy offers counsel on what it means to be a moral leader guided by prioritisation of the common good far above individual interest.

While it is generally accepted that dishonourable behaviour is inevitable, such as lobbying in Western political systems, it cannot be taken as a fait accompli in South Africa because, unlike in Western countries with mature governance institutions, in this country the tolerance of dishonourable behaviour would exacerbate violent service delivery, weaken further active citizenship participation in the body politic and, most alarmingly, enable the mushrooming of seeds of populism and a, not unlikely, South African spring.

* Sehume is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

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

The Sunday Independent

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