Narrowing the gap

2009-10-06 00:00

IT was wrap-up time near the end of an applied ethics workshop I was running recently. One of the attendees put up his hand and asked a crucial question: “What can be done to narrow the gap between professed values and actual values in South Africa?” he asked.

Wanting to be sure that I understood what he was getting at, I asked if he meant things like people and organisations who say they believe in Ubuntu but are in fact only interested in making more money or grabbing more power for themselves, even if this means cheating or exploiting others. He nodded.

What was my reply? I thought about the question for a moment, knowing that my questioner had put his finger on what is arguably our biggest challenge, and then replied as follows: “First, the bad news. There is no quick fix. Then the good news: there is a way to narrow the gap, maybe even overcome it. But the way will be long and hard, and there is no road map.”

Why is there no quick fix? I cited two reasons. Firstly, moral power grows slowly. Secondly, the damage caused by our deeply unjust past is much more serious than many of us acknowledge, above all in the realm of sound values.

Think of the agencies that inculcate a moral sense: a healthy and caring family in a stable home environment; good schools staffed by teachers and principals who regard their work as a vocation; governments and public officials committed to the good of all; and, for most of our people, the influence of a religion with a rich ethic. All of these were weakened, often very seriously, by our long history of discrimination, social dislocation and economic exploitation, so that none of us in this country has been left unscathed.

Goodness must be diligently nurtured from birth onwards or it doesn’t take root in us. Given the destructive forces of our history for more than three centuries, it is surely no surprise that we have such a yawning chasm between professed commitment to sound values, and actual commitment to greed, selfishness and violence. And that means there is no quick fix.

While this is a sobering reality, we dare not let it make us despair and hand the country over to the political and economic bandits who are exploiting the nation’s damaged moral sense for their own selfish ends. Cultures are artifacts, products of human decisions and therefore changeable, not brute facts like the force of gravity. Therefore we can change them, as our recent history proves. We had a culture of apartheid. Now we are building a culture of non-racial democracy.

What do we need to do to change course? We need to provide the best possible ethical nurture for our children at home. We need schools, public officials, politicians and others with a heart. And we need religions that are truer to the awesome ethical power of their founders, more concerned with the slum than the sanctuary, more concerned about justice than ritual, as a great Hebrew prophet once declared.

These measures will take plenty of time and effort. What can happen right now is for all of us and all our leaders to accept that political liberation from the shackles of apartheid, by means of new laws, a new constitution and a new ruling party, does not of itself mean true liberation from the forces of social evil.

We all need the honesty and courage to accept, right now, the grim truth that until South Africa has a genuine ethical renaissance, apartheid will continue to live on, bedevilling our affairs, as it now does. I think we are capable of such courage and honesty. I think we are capable of the creativity that will build practical changes on that courage and honesty. That is the good news.

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

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