SA: A nation of criminals

2010-05-12 00:00

I’M fed up with mealy- mouthed people bleating on about how they won’t read the newspaper or watch the news on TV because “it’s so negative and it’s always about crime”.

If one more person in a supermarket queue, over a dinner table or in the school car park launches into a self-righteous rant about “them” and what “they” are doing to “us”, I think I may do something I’ll regret, probably more than they will.

Unfortunately, Jacob Zuma wasn’t the right person to launch a moral crusade, but he had a point. I genuinely lament the fact that the importance of what the president was trying to suggest was lost in the ensuing hullabaloo over his personal integrity. I admit that if they hooked him up to a lie detector machine it would probably blow a fuse before the operator got to ask the first question. If Mr Fixit and his team tried the same trick on many of those who run or used to run “Not The City of Choice” they’d have a hard time finding enough machines, let alone the power to run them. Best they not try this in Hilton as the electricity might go off just as they get to the juicy bits. But I digress.

Criminals are not only those whose activities make it into the press. They are just the very few whom the authorities manage to catch up with, closely followed by the media. To all those who whitter away about “declining moral standards”, etc., while standing on what they think is the moral high ground, I want to suggest that most, if not all of us, are criminals. This is a nation of lawbreakers.

There’s an old joke that illustrates my point. It’s about a dad who gets angry with his son when he gets caught stealing pencils at school. The father ends his lecture about “letting down the family name, etc.”, with a telling parting comment: “After all, son, all you needed to do was tell me you needed stationery and I’d have brought you some from work.”

We are a nation of lawbreakers because we routinely behave in ways that infringe or ignore the law. Stories are legion about locals who emigrate to more law-abiding countries and find themselves in trouble when they behave as they did back home. Many an ex- South African has discovered that jaywalking in Canada, drinking and driving in Australia and violating parking regulations in the UK really are illegal and they suffer the consequences accordingly. I bet that the average South African breaks the law several times every day in the course of his or her daily routine. We are a nation of lawless drivers; we reproduce copyrighted books, CDs and DVDs; we buy pirated and cheap knock-off goods; we try to evade the tax authorities; we routinely steal time, property and money from our employers; and we desecrate the environment.

As parents of young children, we engage daily in the challenge of trying to teach Anna and Jason moral principles. Our responsibility is to help them grow into adults who carry an internalised set of values so that their desire to behave ethically is driven from within, not by the external fear of getting caught. We want them to grow into people who behave honourably even when no one is watching, simply, but powerfully, because “it is the right thing to do”. The value of personal integrity is more than “above rubies” and it’s a commodity that’s clearly in short supply in this country.

If we all started asking ourselves, every day, the simple question: “Is this the right thing to do?” I have no doubt that our entire society would be all the better for it.

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