He has to figure out if there is any benefit to being morally upright when everyone has chosen the easy way out.
The protagonist – referred to only as “The Man” – ponders whether he diminishes his and his family’s prospects for a better life by remaining true to principles and rules he believed were there for everyone to follow.
Because he refuses to take bribes when everyone else around him has no such hang-ups, he earns his wife’s ire and the ridicule of his community.
I am reminded of this story by the reaction to Kgalema Motlanthe’s decision to want to contest the ANC presidency by sticking to the rules.
Apparently, ANC leaders are not supposed to lobby for their positions.
They are supposed to pretend that the positions they are saddled with are an imposition that they feel duty bound to carry out, even if this messes with their best laid plans.
This foolish idealism will now cause Motlanthe to lose even his current position as ANC deputy president because he stuck (or at least said he was sticking) to the rules that seemingly everyone accepts to be antiquated.
He might even be recalled from government because of this.
For the sake of those who believe that everyone in South Africa is for one or another of the ANC leadership slates, let me state here that this column is not intended to critique Motlanthe’s decision or to attach moral judgement to his decision.
As in Armah’s classic novel, it is about how many commentators blithely dismissed the foolishness of sticking to the rules when everyone else was breaking them.
It was like accepting that the ANC’s provincial processes ahead of its national conference were like the Tour de France, where the only differential was the sophistication of the underhandedness and not whether there was any in the first place.
But as in Armah’s novel, it must tell a sad tale of our country when we accept, without thinking for a moment, that rules are for idiots and idealists.
Accepting this as a natural way of life is accepting the inevitability of our path to being a kleptocracy and a failed state, where democratic ideals are no more than a belief in Alice in Wonderland’s fantasy.
Breaking rules is like using drugs.
It becomes a habit and you require increasing dosages to give you the effect you once derived. We simply have to institutionalise living and working by the rules or accept we will live in a permanent state of anarchy.
The signs are already there and it is not just in the ANC.
With the festive season upon us, drivers will take to the roads drunk because “everyone is doing it”.
When caught, the arresting officers will accept bribes because “everyone is doing it”.
It is accepted that if you want to win a government tender, you need to grease a palm.
If you are serious about getting a driving licence, you must prove this by “thanking” someone for taking time off their busy schedules to test your ability to drive.
In some cases, women accept that they will provide sexual favours if they want to get jobs or advance their careers.
We have made “everyone is doing it” a logical dictum, even with what should be an aberration in a society that has self-respect.
Leadership and sense must prevail to remind us that rules exist because human beings cannot always be trusted to make the right decisions about the welfare of society, especially where their own interests may be affected.
If the rules we have are not suitable for our times or circumstances, then they need to be changed and replaced by ones that are suitable.
To treat rules unfavourably goes against our claims of being civilised.
Without rules and respect for them, only our fashion sense distinguishes us from Conan the Barbarian.
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