Are we good? Are we not good?

2010-06-28 00:00

President Jacob Zuma invited the nation to take part in a debate on morality, but was God invited? This is the question that was posed at two conversations co-hosted in the Godless City by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and at the Jesuit Institute, Braamfontein, in May and June.

The consensus of the panellists, who were either religious leaders or believing academics, was that God didn’t actually need an invitation, especially in a country in which the overwhelming majority are believers and, at least in theory, underpin their behaviour with some understanding of the divine will. As the director­ of the Jesuit Institute put it in the first conversation, although we have a secular constitution “we are a multifaith, not a no-faith society­”.

Professor Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of the UJ, noted that religion has been a source of good and evil in history and therefore an initial problem was to decide which forms of religion should be admitted to such a discussion.

“Which disciples of God should be allowed,” he asked. ”And who should not be?”

Nomboniso Gasa — a writer, an Anglican­ lay minister and a sangoma­ — was uneasy with the call for a national morality. As far as she is concerned the morality of South Africa is to be found in the Constitution and this had to be defended and interpreted to protect the most marginalised. She is unhappy with the proposal of codes of morality which she felt are too often a manipulation of culture and tradition by powerful interests.

Both Habib and Rabbi Robert Ash of the Beit Emanuel Synagogue, welcomed the search for a morality informed by faith. However, Ash is concerned lest the process be hijacked by fundamentalists.

“Thank God for secularists,” he said. “They have saved religious people from many horrors.”

He noted that this dialogue often had the interesting outcome of making it easier to find common ground with people of similar views but of other faiths, than with people within one’s own tradition.

Anglican Bishop Peter Lee was well supported by the other participants in his contention that the promotion of social and economic justice, and not the private lives of politicians, is the most important aspect of public morality. This argument was given more weight from the floor when it was suggested that family cohesion is damaged by the situation of widespread poverty, unemployment and social inequality. The personal behaviour of some politicians and their misuse of office for financial gain, while certainly offering bad role models, is not the sole source of concern — public morality­ has to extend to business and the religious sector.

Catholic Archbishop Buti Thla- gale­ began the second discussion with a call for a renewal of public morality among the country’s leaders based on a real concern for the common good. The Reverend Frank Chikane followed this up with a call for a conservative, but revolutionary religious morality in which the moral agent seeks the good of all, including his or her enemy. He regretted the loss of ideals of the ruling party, but admitted that the movement had not anticipated the temptations that the post-apartheid situation had brought about. A new situation created a new, and less scrupulous moral consciousness. For this he recounted the time when his life was being threatened and his nonviolence gave way to a strong desire for an AK47.

Employing some entertaining rabbinic stories, Professor Steven Friedman, who is also a Jewish lay preacher, focused some of the broader principles onto concrete issues­. He recalled how, in conversation on these issues with a nonbelieving thinker, he had been struck by his quotation of the proverb, “enough is as good as a feast”. In a deeply unequal society the challenge is for believers to determine what we mean by enough and to live it. For this he proposed a broad prophetic coalition across the spectrum of belief.

The Jesuit Institute director Raymond Perrier asked participants in the second conversation whether they thought that this was a kairos moment as regards the moral tenor of South Africa. The consensus is that when it comes to public morality there is a sense in which there is always a kairos — a crisis and an opportunity. But what we can say about this particular moment in our history is, as Chikane put it “a crisis of success”. This success is perhaps symbolised by the coming of the World Cup to this country and the positive response to it. What we have to do with this success is to learn to live with it. • Chris Chatteris and Anthony Egan write and broadcast for the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg. (

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