Choosing integrity

2009-11-12 00:00

WE are here to honour Helen Suzman’s memory whose life was the embodiment of integrity in all respects. Hers was a tough time in the life of our nation. But she did not shy away from making those tough calls that leaders who leave a deep imprint on society are called to make.

For Nelson Mandela, her contemporary, it was a matter of commitment to ideals of freedom for which he was prepared to die. For a much younger man, Stephen Biko, it was a matter of honouring an idea worth dying for, rather than living for ideas that would die. Suzman’s ideals drove her from her comfort zone as an upper middle-class suburban white South African to stand for a more just society.

All the signs in our society point to the need for us to take stock and ask ourselves fundamental questions about how we have been able to discharge our responsibilities to honour the ideals we enshrined in our founding Constitution. We stand at a crossroads yet again as a society struggling to emerge from the growing pains of being a young democracy.

It is fair to say that much more is asked of us than we have given over the past decade and a half. We all grossly underestimated the task of transforming ourselves into a democratic society. We did not reflect enough on the paradigm shift it would entail given our pre-1994 histories. Nor did we appreciate the complexities in our diverse starting points of our journey to the new dispensation.

The issue we face now is how we rediscover the ideals for which so many have sacrificed their lives and devoted so much energy. How do we wrestle with the inherent tensions in choosing integrity in public life as individuals, public servants, business people and community activists?


What is Integrity in Public Life?

Integrity is defined as that which is beyond reproach, fully honourable and trustworthy. But in public life such a definition is inadequate. The complex issues inherent in integrity are best dealt with by standing outside the obvious formulations.

Theodore Sturgeon takes an interesting approach to this issue in a 1953 novel titled The Wages of Synergy. He constructs a dialogue between a wise man and a youngster:

“An act can be both moral and ethical. But under some circumstances a moral act can be counter to ethics, and an ethical act can be immoral.”

“I am with you so far,” the youngster said.

“Morals and ethics are survival urges, both of them. But look, an individual must survive within his group. The problems of survival within the group are morals.”

“Gotcha. And ethics?” the youngster probed further.

“Well the group itself must survive, as a unit. The patterns of an individual within the group, toward the end of group survival, are ethics.”

Cautiously the youngster said: “You’d better go on a bit.”

“You’ll see it in a minute. Now, morals can dictate a pattern to a man such that he survives within the group which itself may have no survival value. For example, in some societies it is immoral not to eat human flesh. But to refrain from it would be ethical, because that would be toward group survival. See?”

The question before us now is what frame of reference have we been and are we currently using to make choices as citizens of this democracy? What paradigm underpins our conduct in public life? Is it group morality or is it ethics? How do we respond to pressure to sustain the patterns of acts driven by group morality? How is this group moral pattern of acts in line with the values of our human-rights Constitution?


Integrity, Ideals and Citizenship

Our society is bleeding. The social pain endured by those who have remained marginal in our society has burst into greater and louder protests in our streets.

We have not focused enough on the costs of exclusion and marginalisation for those people still living in poverty and deprivation. In addition, what development efforts have been made have been driven by a paradigm that does not address the self-worth and self-respect aspects of the social pain of living in an unequal society. RDP houses that are shoddily constructed by politically connected winners of tenders are an additional affront to what is left of their dignity. Disrespect by public officials and loss of life due to uncaring health professionals weigh heavily on those excluded from the fruits of freedom. Our democracy is at risk from the level of inequality that is exacerbated by patterns of actions that are unethical.

The media is overflowing with reports of corruption, nepotism and looting of public resources. A culture of impunity has taken root over the past decade due to the failure of those in authority to hold involved officials accountable. The deployment policy of the African National Congress that has packed public services with incompetent politically connected people has undermined the institutional culture of our public service. The good officials are demoralised and have left the service. Appointing and promoting people beyond their levels of competence not only breaks the law in terms of the Public Service Act, but fails the ethics test. The public good is undermined by imperatives of the “morality of the party and its survival”. It is encouraging that some leaders of the ANC are urging a shift from this perverse incentive system.

The same group morality operates in the private sector. How else can one explain the participation of the private sector in corrupt and nepotistic deals? What of anticompetitive practices that artificially push up prices for basic foods and services that negatively affect poor people disproportionately?


What Legacy?

What are we to tell our grandchildren about the choices we have made over the past decade and a half of our democracy?

Are we going to be able to hand over a society we are proud of to the next generation? What would we say about our silences in the face of group morals trumping ethics in public policy and practice, HIV/Aids denialism, education underperformance and corruption in high places? What about our inaction in the face of outrageous statements by young political leaders such as “Shoot to kill the University of Free State’s Professor Jonathan Jansen” and “Professor Kader Asmal must just die”?

We are at a crossroads as a society. We need to make a second transition to strengthen the institutions of our democracy to enlarge the political space for more citizens to make ethical choices. We need to identify constraints that may limit this space. We should not shy away from what may look like holy cows, including our Constitution.

The provision of our Constitution for proportional representation without the counterbalancing constituency representation mechanism has the unintended consequence of weakening the voice of the voters.

The resulting strong role played by parties in allocating positions within Parliament and in the executive branch of government disempowers citizens. Our electoral and parliamentary systems unintentionally promote group morality by giving too much power to political parties, with a resultant weakening of incentives for ethical choices.

Citizens need to work with those in the ANC who are proposing reviving the Report of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform to get a constitutional amendment passed through Parliament before the next national and provincial elections.

Preserving and strengthening our democracy depend on it.


• This is an edited version of a speech given by Dr Mamphela Ramphele at the second Helen Suzman lecture in Cape Town earlier this month.

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