Stand up and be counted

2011-03-22 00:00

YESTERDAY we celebrated South Africa's Human Rights Day. A short while ago we celebrated international Human Rights Day. On both occasions we were reminded of the bills of rights written in statutes of this country and others. I suggest this has been of limited value because without right foundations in the value system, these rights are as abstract to an ordinary person as are codified laws.

Therefore, we ought to use this moment to draw from the principal laws of existence. Without this, celebrations, rallies, dinners and seminars would do very little to deepen our freedom and democracy.

Clearly, the second phase of our democracy is a major battle, a much more complex struggle to wage than the one against apartheid. This is the struggle against poverty. I do not mean just the shortage of food, material benefits and money. I am not referring to poverty measured in terms of monetary benchmarks like the number of people who live on R8 per day. For this is not the most challenging form of poverty that we as a nation have to contend with, rather it is the poverty of values, moral conduct, duty, honour, dignity, service and love or compassion for others.

This is the root of the troubles facing our democracy more than are corruption, nepotism, self-enrichment or unemployment, as these are but a manifestation of underlying poverty. The depressing stories that we read about on a daily basis, the most disheartening of which include the embezzlement of public funds, callous public servants, greed in the private sector and ubiquitous violence, all point to the poverty that I refer to.

I have seen this poverty at the scenic Shiyane in the north and on the rolling hills of Umzimkulu in the south. I see it in the big metro of Durban and the township of Wartburg in the northeast. It is observable in our schools, clinics, public-service offices, taxi ranks, and businesses.

It is a poverty that renders politics a zero-sum game of the elite driven by selfish interests. It makes the idea of a corporate citizenship for business look like a far-fetched illusion, which is impossible to realise. The local government elections will be undermined by this poverty.

There are many people who are without a source of income and who are battling to make ends meet. They represent a wasted potential until they find employment. Employment means any useful activity by which they, as Mohandas Gandhi would have put it, find themselves by losing themselves in service for others.

Too many of us are looking for a job in order to be bonded to others whose duty it should be to provide for us. Here lies one major form of poverty: the failure to realise that wealth is not limited to acquisition of material assets, but can be discovered rather in finding ourselves and using ingenuity to realise our potential.

This requires the ordinary people of Msunduzi and KwaNdengezi to decide to take a keen interest in the affairs of their community, helping those who are weaker and less able to help themselves and rebuilding community structures. Complain they must. But more importantly, they must hold the government and business accountable and compel them to help realise the goals of their own plans and programmes.

At another level, the celebration of human rights must also remind us that, again as Gandhi once said, rights that do not flow from duty well performed are not worth having. Those who are in power have a duty primarily to look after the interests of the rest of us, for by putting them in power we have taken care of their interests. They ought not to be looking after their own wellbeing again, for that would be to benefit twice at the expense of the poor.

Possibly our biggest regret as the country is that we paid a lot of attention to fixing racial and ethic disharmony, but perhaps then lacked the time to build a new nation based on a value system that prioritises human duties and rights, and selfless service and excellence.

Martin Luther King Jnr once said that the greatest tragedy of the period of transition such as ours "is not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people".

This is the time for people of good morals, sound ideas, abundant resources, much energy and great vision to stand up and be counted, or the clamour of the corrupt, selfish, and power-hungry lot will rule our days.

On this basis, we can build prosperous communities and a better nation.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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