The renowned ethicist Stanley Hauerwas used to tell his classes that all ethics came down to just one principle: “Never lie!” We need a return to truth right now to stop us from drowning in our own muck. In this week’s election, more than anything else, it is truth that is on trial and we must decide for truth or the lie.
Before evil can prosper, people have to be persuaded that it’s okay to lie. Under apartheid truth was subordinated to propaganda and became a devalued currency, now it’s happening again. Then, the lying was to preserve white privilege, now it is about satisfying greed. Either way, truth is the casualty.
Too many of those who claim to govern us have forgotten what truth is. While a fearless Public Protector and Constitutional Court, plus Jacques Pauw’s President’s Keepers and an undaunted press achieved the end of former president Jacob Zuma’s corrupt reign, that was only the beginning. The commission on state capture brings daily revelations of the extent to which the tentacles of deceit and avarice have sunk into one state institution after another, sucking them dry. Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State exposes further rottenness that crooked politicians want kept quiet. The purveyors of lies threaten journalists and send thugs on book-burning missions.
Meanwhile, South Africa is becoming almost as “ungovernable” as it was in the 1980s, for all the wrong reasons. Then it was a dispossessed people rising courageously against racist oppression, now it is an outraged citizenry angered beyond patience at the way greed among their own elected representatives has robbed them of houses, roads, schools, clinics and, above all, jobs. Their uprisings will intensify and, rather than let this continue, they could pull the whole rotten edifice down with them.
Of course lying is not unique to our nation: We’re discovering that we live in an increasingly “post-truth” world. Donald Trump would ask, “What is truth?” without a hint of irony, because he actually has no clue. In two years he has lied more than 2 000 times to the US people and his political party doesn’t seem to give a damn as long as it holds on to power.
Our politicians started small with Travelgate, lying about their flight allowances. Later, emboldened by a venal president, dishonesty became the “new normal” and some of them got to steal millions. Again, I wonder which is worse: Cabinet ministers lying and stealing and taking bribes – or their party apparently not giving a damn? How else are we to interpret the fact that a number of known crooks are back on the ANC candidates’ list?
Surely “we the people”, ought to give a damn? Such politicians are dangerous because they can infect us all. Their behaviour gives permission to us all to behave badly. Surely we should make this a moment of truth for the governing party? A party that knowingly permits ethically compromised ministers and other notorious characters to stand for Parliament is not deserving of the votes of honest citizens. It means that their “Integrity Commission” has no integrity and gives the lie to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promises of a “new dawn”.
Yes, of course we know that there are crooks in other parties and they too must be rooted out. But it’s the big boy on the block who has taken power for granted for too long that most needs a lesson at the polls. Mr President, there isn’t much time left before the election. It’s time to muck out your stable, otherwise no one with a conscience should vote for your party.
Storey is a past leader of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the SA Council of Churches, and author of I Beg to Differ – Ministry Amid the Teargas