A tough but kindly cosmos

2008-12-18 00:00

For most visitors, Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront is a hub of shops, restaurants, fancy hotels and the ferry to Robben Island. Or it is a place to stroll about watching the busy small craft on a sunny day, with Table Mountain as a stunning backdrop.

For me, however, it brings back vivid memories of an applied ethics mini-course at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, run some years ago by Dr Rush Kidder, a leading voice from the United States in the global ethics movement.

I especially relished his opening exercise for our group. He asked us whether we thought the moral barometer in South Africa was rising or falling and got us to list the evidence. In other words, what is winning, the good or the bad?

As we near the end of a year with so much negative news, it lifts the soul to revisit the moral barometer and remember the good things as well. Nobody doubts that there is much that has gone gravely wrong: the financial and Zimbabwean meltdowns, politicians whose moral compass has ceased to function, bad service delivery, a looming water crisis, retrenchments and more.

But what about the positive things? Top of my list is the turn-around in U.S. politics with Barack Obama’s win and with it the end of the loathsome reign of the neo-cons — that hawkish gang of George W. Bush buddies who believe in a U.S. empire dominating the world, by force if necessary, until kingdom come.

Who knows, with their demise we might even have a new commission of inquiry into 9/11, given the relentlessly powerful challenge to the official version mounted by David Ray Griffin and others.

Then there is the mounting evidence that the gurus of the financial world are at last waking up to the truth that lasting wealth only comes about when it is based on strong ethical values. Maybe we are at last learning that when somebody tells us that greed is good, we don’t fall down and worship such piffle but laugh it to scorn.

In South Africa there are welcome signs that we are reaching the end of the monolithic politics that has done untold harm to the country, with its false and dangerous belief that loyalty and self-interest rank higher than integrity and service.

For a country ravaged by HIV and Aids, a new national Minister of Health is bringing about a wonderful new dispensation for all who suffer that dreadful affliction, besides giving us a major triumph for real medical science over dissident delusions of the beetroot and garlic kind.

And then there are the countless acts of ordinary human goodness: friendly words of greeting by colleagues, flowers in the home, offers to collect your mail while you are away, children who remember your wedding anniversary and your favourite wine or chocolate — we can all make such lists and find that they are apt to be long ones indeed.

Maybe the moral barometer really is telling us that better weather beckons. At a time of the year marked by many special acts of generosity, often with a strongly religious meaning, I remember the opening words of a book by one of my mentors in my student days in England, the theologian David Jenkins, later to become Bishop of Durham.

He wrote that “God is either a gift or a delusion.” I have reflected on those words for decades during my many travels across the landscapes of both belief and unbelief, and still they yield fresh flowers of meaning. May they do so for others too.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant and emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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