What makes a nation great?

US President Donald Trump in Las Vegas. (AP File)
US President Donald Trump in Las Vegas. (AP File)

Exactly what does US President Donald Trump mean when he talks about making America great? What makes any nation great?

This question cries out for an answer, not just in the US but also in South Africa, because a worthwhile future depends on it.

What follows is an invitation to a conversation.

To work out my own answer, I based my thinking mainly on the great achievement of replacing apartheid, largely non-violently, with a nonracial democracy, but also on the problems we still face.

Firstly, justice must transform everything where there is still the slightest trace of injustice, not just in the laws of a country but also in its cultures.

We’ve made racism illegal but it lingers on and must be transformed. Justice must also extend to every kind of discrimination against people for things they cannot help.

We have legislated against gender injustice and injustice on the grounds of sexual orientation and belief, but these evils remain present in our heritages of patriarchy, intolerance and religious bigotry.

Will President Trump ameliorate or worsen them? Will we? Furthermore, justice means that injustice must never be combatted with injustice, but with justice and humaneness.

This will be vital as we begin to deal effectively with the land issue.

Our South African experience over recent decades tells us that justice, while absolutely essential, is not enough to make a nation great.

It must be crowned with a culture of generosity, marked by special, active concern for the poor and the helpless.

Here we have much to be proud of in the way we provide at least a minimum amount of money for those in need, but at the same time we have also allowed a shameful culture of greed, entitlement and corruption to embed itself in society.

Are we not still a long way from the greatness of being a truly generous people? Will Trump’s America be a truly generous nation?

A great nation will also be a prosperous one because without wealth, poverty cannot be reduced, good health and educational services cannot be provided and roads cannot be properly maintained.

But justice also means that wealth must be created honourably, fairly taxed and honestly used.

Can a system of rapacious, greedy capitalism do this, or does it merely make the few fabulously rich, depress the middle classes and create masses of poor people?

Can Trump and President Jacob Zuma really cultivate a culture of moral capitalism?

My next requirement flows from both justice and generosity. In a society of many cultures and faiths, a great nation will be one that is a welcoming home for all.

It will seek to transform hostility into hospitality and bigotry into respect; it will rejoice in diversity and detest narrow nationalism, ethnicity and cultural elitism.

Here too we have done well with our Constitution and new laws, but we have a way to go before we can feel that we truly welcome and embrace our own diversity.

Will our two presidents foster this requirement for national greatness or frustrate it?

Greatness certainly needs dedication to moral integrity, which requires, at the least, consistent honesty. While this is important for everybody, it is especially vital in all leaders, especially those of countries.

Furthermore, integrity requires more than honesty of speech and an uncompromising commitment to the facts; it requires honesty with money and other assets.

Can leaders whose respect for truth or financial probity is in doubt inspire their citizens to greater moral integrity?

A great nation will be democratic, for no other political system treats its citizens as equals and as the sovereign holders of power.

No other system gives the people such freedom, with the vital proviso that it must never be used to harm others.

For that reason, a truly great nation will ensure that rights are balanced with responsibilities.

A great nation does not go about its business violently, because it cherishes peace and harmony. It does not drive deprived and desperate citizens to acts of violent retaliation.

Both South Africa and the US are gun-riddled countries.

Will their presidents at last do something to curb this dreadful evil?

Finally, a great nation is one which cherishes the integrity of its natural environment.

It will combat and eliminate whatever pollutes its air, waters, plant and animal life, seas and soils.

I heard nothing in President Trump’s inaugural speech to suggest he cares a fig for protecting the environment of his country or that of the wider world.

I fervently hope he proves me wrong.

Meanwhile, here in South Africa, there are moves afoot to permit fracking despite much evidence that it is very bad for the environment, and our scarce waters especially.

Greatness does not come from military muscle, narrow nationalism, cultures of plunder, pompous platitudes or masses of money.

It comes from practising the finest ethical values of justice, generosity, respect, responsibility and integrity. Way to go, Donald. Way to go, JZ.

Prozesky is an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a professor extraordinaire of the University of the Free State, and an applied ethics trainer and writer working under the banner of Compass Ethics

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