Second Take: We need to address our degenerate nation

2012-04-28 09:01

South Africans have grown comfortable with the notion that we are an intrinsically flawed nation.

We generously apply this convenient view when explaining the degradation of our society and whenever we discuss challenges of the day – the education crisis, the HIV/Aids pandemic, violent crimes and, most recently, the brutal gang rape of a 17-year-old Soweto girl.

We further entrench this bias within our collective psyche when we lament our deteriorating reputation and whenever we receive negative international attention.

But continuing to hold this view serves only to distract us from addressing the true causes of this degeneration, because assigning blame further undermines our chances of resolving our sad state of affairs.

Although often contentious, research into human behaviour points to the environment as a key contributor.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment – a simulation of the relationship between guards and prisoners in trying to understand the relationship between power and evil – and the more recent Abu Ghraib scandal of prison abuse in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, led him to conclude that “the line between good and evil is moveable and permeable. Good people can be seduced through that line.”

Zimbardo contended that environment can encourage people to become perpetrators of evil. And if indeed the predictor of a person’s behaviour is their environment, then our children are not failing because they are South African, men are not raping because they are South African and nor are our leaders corrupt because they are South African.

It is true that there is something about South Africa that seems to bring such darkness to light, but branding our leaders as a “strange breed”, men as evil and children as stupid serves only to entrench our psychological bias towards ourselves.

To move closer towards solving our moral conundrum, we must stop asking what is wrong with South Africans and begin to ask what is wrong with South Africa.

What is it about our environments that have produced the continued degeneration of social relationships, and the escalation in violent and grotesque crimes against women?

 What systems have we created that lead to public leadership being so synonymous with corruption? Let us not make the mistake of assuming that these different systems are unrelated – these are smaller systems within the system that is South Africa.

When one subsystem breaks down, it is quite easy for the entire system to slowly fall apart.

People will always get away with whatever the system lets them get away with. Whether it’s corruption or rape, without effective mechanisms to capture, prosecute and punish, we cannot hope to curb the spread of societal degeneration. But then again, we should always aim first to build with the intention of bringing the best out of people.

There is barely a link between performance and reward within public service, which in effect rewards bad behaviour. Coupled with weak institutional and leadership accountability for poor performance, social systems continue to be further weakened.

Although tougher laws and more effective courts are desperately needed, if we don’t address the degeneration at its source, we will inevitably produce more of it.

» Ndlovu is a management consultant and managing director of Youth Lab 

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