Right, wrong and the Reitz Four

2009-10-30 00:00

THE trickiest moral dilemmas are often those where both options are ethical. Such a dilemma faced the University of the Free State (UFS): whether to drop charges against the Reitz Four, seek reconciliation and provide financial compensation to the workers whom they hurt, or to continue with those charges.

Was the UFS right in putting mercy above justice? Some think so. Others disagree.

Which side has the moral high ground? Let us use some time-honoured moral tests to guide us, starting with Ubuntu (or Botho, to use the Sesotho term), as befits a situation where the people so egregiously hurt were black Africans.

In a classic definition, Desmond Tutu wrote that Ubuntu “speaks about humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable; it embraces compassion and toughness”.

Guided by this definition from a global moral hero, I want to focus firstly on the UFS and its leadership because their preference for mercy and reconciliation is at the centre of the controversy, and because the UFS was also damaged by the Reitz Four. Thereafter I will consider the abused workers, and, briefly, our nation with its legacy of ugly racism. And let us not forget the key point that it was not the UFS leadership that abused those workers. Nor has it presumed to choose mercy for the Reitz Four on their behalf.

What does Ubuntu/Botho require of the UFS: justice or mercy? Here I turn to a second, time-honoured ethical guideline, the Golden Rule. Present in all the great value systems, it tells us that what we want done to ourselves, we must do to others.

If I were the UFS leadership and I heeded the Golden Rule, I would choose mercy because it is better able to further the Ubuntu qualities defined by Desmond Tutu than taking those students to court, with all the grave consequences that involves.

For the abused workers, wondering what would be best in relation to the four students but also thinking of the university and the nation, which is truer to Ubuntu, justice or mercy?

Obviously, I can’t speak for those workers. But if I were in their situation I hope I would rise above justifiable anger and say that Ubuntu makes mercy more important even than court-room justice for the four Reitz students. I would also want to heed the Golden Rule.

If I had been abused like those workers, the Golden Rule makes me ask myself what I would want done to me if I had been the abuser. Would I want to be relentlessly pursued through the courts, with the probability of a criminal record, continued exclusion from my university, and have my career prospects seriously damaged? Or would I want those I had hurt to give me a second chance and show forgiveness and reconciliation — always assuming I showed deep remorse for what I had done?

Would most of us not go for mercy if we heeded Ubuntu/Botho and the Golden Rule?

Lastly, let’s consider the nation. We all agree that the demon of racism must be exorcised. Which is more likely to help exorcise it in this situation, on the part of the UFS: the path of justice through the courts, or the path of forgiveness and reconciliation?

If we are deeply committed to Ubuntu/Botho and the Golden Rule, would we not choose mercy because we would want it for ourselves and because it is good?

In reaching this conclusion, I am also guided by the wisdom of my late friend and mentor, Harry Silberberg, a Jewish law professor who narrowly escaped the Nazi terror of his native Germany. He told me, a young academic at the time, that law at its best is only a minimal ethic. For a rich ethic, more is needed.

What more? Remember Amy Biehl and remember the amazing magnanimity of her family.

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

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