Prince Mashele

The triumph of evil over good

2009-12-14 12:04

The value system of the South African society has sunk so low that it can only be explained through the theory of the relativity of bareness. 

The premise of this new theory is that, fundamentally, human societies are about a never-ending struggle between good and evil. The triumph of evil over good shows itself through the prevalence of a perverse value system within society. Similarly, in a society where good prevails, the value system is manifestly weaved around what is right, and it reflects a loftiness of cultural civilization.  But how do you practically evaluate a value system?

Public discourse is one of the useful instruments for grasping the collective mind of a society.  In our daily dialogues through the media, we exhibit our collective attitudes to and feelings about key and trivial matters that affect society.  The questions we pose to our leaders, the topics that preoccupy the minds of those who shape public opinions, the disgust or cheerfulness we express in response to unusual stories are all components of a barometer to measure our value system as a nation.

While useful, public discourses are not deficiency-free in measuring society’s value system. The methodological deficiency of a public discourse approach is that it is incapable of dealing effectively with a widespread human tendency: pretence. 

In a society such as ours, where honesty is in short supply, public discourses can be riddled with grandstanding and choreographed image projection. Have we not been shocked to learn that a respectable public figure is a wife batterer, an alcoholic or a serial womanizer? Yet, when such figures participate in public discourse, they sound and appear like nuns or saints. 

In our society, very many people have mastered the art of using public discourse to construct and project a good image of themselves. But it does not mean that such people do not do terrible things when the nation is resting at night. How, then, do you avoid being misled by pretence when evaluating the value system of a particular society?

In addition to gleaning skeptically from public discourse, the ability to penetrate society’s hidden corners is an absolute necessity.  What do people say about social and political questions when they are in coffee shops, in a bar, in clubs and in similar private, social spaces?  Privacy is the best revealer of honesty. Where privacy is guaranteed, diplomacy is the first victim.  And where diplomacy prevails, honesty suffocates.

While most people may hate to admit, the South African value system today evinces the triumph of evil over good.  To understand this, you first need to grasp the pretentious nature of our public discourse, and penetrate the hidden spaces of our society.

Public vs private

In public discourse, we project ours as a nation of citizens who abhor infidelity, but we know too well that our husbands and wives have extramarital affairs.  Again, in public discourse, we all emphasize the importance of using condoms, but we know too well that many people don’t.

When we hear that someone was caught with another man’s girlfriend, we use public discourse to express disgust, and wonder privately: why did they not do it in a hotel, where they would not have been caught? When we hear that someone used bank transfers to pay a bribe, we laugh at the stupidity of such a person and, again, wonder privately: why did he not do it like Willy Madisha?

In our politics, the most unbelievable things also happen. When you think a person who has been declared unfit and improper to hold a position of responsibility would be removed from his job, the opposite happens. Indeed, our value system is such that a person who was called a ‘liar’ in a commission of enquiry by a competent judge is rewarded with the most senior of positions in the public service.

A new political culture also seems to be worming its way into vogue; it is called ‘rent-a-crowd’ or ‘hire-political-mercenaries’.  When there are allegations that a senior person is not performing in a parastatal or that he has been involved in wrong doing, calls are quickly made for members of political organizations to accompany such a person to court as a show of support. Or a political leader somewhere would quickly announce that they support the official who is in trouble.

If you are still not convinced that evil has triumphed over good in South Africa, think of a youth leader who has no university qualification but who is welcomed warmly by students on many of our campuses. Could there be a better explanation why university students ululate and clap hands when listening to a young person who had the opportunity but knows no university door? Even more shocking, a university vice chancellor declares that the uneducated youth leader understands issues better than university professors. Such is how evil has triumphed in our own society. 

How, then, does the new theory of the relativity of bareness assist us to make sense of all of these oddities?

As is evident, the preposterousness of the oddities in our society is so bare. Given that good has already been defeated in its struggle against evil, the key question is no longer about the difference between right and wrong.  We are now concerned principally with the relativity of wrong.

While we know that absurdities in our society are bare, our primary concern is: to what extent are they absurd? So, when a person with a hollow credibility is given a position of responsibility, a minor storm in public discourse twirls and quickly subsides. Thereafter, life continues as if nothing happened; as if wrong was right!

Within a short space of time, following a minor storm in public discourse, wrong swiftly puts on the garb of right. As if in a circus, it does not take long before people place a halo on wrong. You will hear such statements as ‘he is not so bad,’ ‘he has proven critics wrong,’ ‘he is better than …’ or ‘we now have a …’

Evil triumphs?

Once you hear such phrases,   you should know immediately that in the struggle between good and evil, evil has triumphed. Essentially, this means that the theory of the relativity of bareness is hard at work.   The guiding public attitude is: we know that it is bare, but it is relatively less bare!

The only thing that awakens us from our collective slumber is a crisis. As acclaimed theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger observes in his magnum opus, False Necessity, crisis acts like a ‘midwife of change’. Without a crisis, our nation is quite comfortable with wrong. If the wrong affects the underclass, the elite would go about their daily business, and enjoy their fortunate insulation from the burden of the underclass.

If it does not affect them, those in the private sector would completely ignore the fact that many poor South Africans do not have access to quality health care. Talks of a national health insurance scheme provoke raw sectoral instincts.

Before Cosatu escalated the issue of labour brokers to a crisis level, none really cared about the plight of workers who, for many years, have been exploited by unscrupulous labour brokers with an insatiable appetite for money.

Before the recent wave of service delivery protests, few in the corridors of power took the grievances of ordinary citizens seriously. For years, we watched corruption, incompetence and political arrogance converge against the underclass of our country.  It is only after the crisis recently caused by the underclass that we began to hear an admission that there is something wrong with a deployment policy.

The problem with a crisis-dependent society such as ours is that some crises are not radical in their manifestation, and they softly eat away at the sinews that are necessary for the collective health of society. For example, while there may never be a destabilizing protest when a person with a badly injured credibility is given a top position, it may take years to make society believe that the public sector is a place for citizens with integrity and credibility.

While it may not be true, perceptions already exit that meritocracy is a concept alien to our civil service. Unfortunately, such perceptions prevail alongside a real and urgent need for the best skills in the public sector. When we promote mediocrity and incompetence, we ipso facto repel merit, excellence and talent.  This is far above the kindergarten trivia of arrogant knowledge; it is a question that distinguishes successful from unsuccessful nations.

One of the signs that evil has indeed triumphed in its duel with good is denialism.  While we all know that the observations we have made are correct, those among us who are vocally gifted will always scream very loudly to convince society that truth is not true.  As they continue to deny, society sinks further and further, and the theory of the relativity of bareness gains validity and more explanatory power.

Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (, and  a member of the Midrand Group.

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