OPINION | Yanga Malotana: Moral regeneration is necessary to protect women, democracy and the Earth

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The moral, political and social issues in South Africa are interrelated and it is necessary to have a wide-ranging discourse and strategy on these, writes the University of Pretoria's Yanga Malotana.  


July marks the commemoration of Moral Regeneration Month, an initiative founded by the Moral Regeneration Movement. The initiative aims to encourage people to recommit efforts to building communities grounded on positive values and to re-dedicate to building a caring society in pursuit of creating lasting peace and prosperity in the country.

The celebration coincides with Mandela Day on 18 July, former president Nelson Mandela's birthday, who is considered to be the main inspiration for the formation of the Moral Regeneration Movement.

"Moral decay" is a term used to describe the decline or fall of the moral values of civilisation. This concept, which is sometimes referred to as decadence, is most often illustrated by the decline of the Roman Empire due to malaise and loss of civic virtue.

Decadence is a "behaviour that shows low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame etc". This can be seen in individuals and societies as a pattern of abandoning previously held beliefs and values. Several scholars blame decadent behaviour and corrupt morals for the Roman Empire's decline - although this is by no means a fact. Moral decay is a relative concept, as it is predicated on a set of morals that may be different depending on the society in question.

Questioning itself 

Bauman Zygmut wrote a paper that looked into the pedagogy of politics undergirded by cynicism.

Zygmut, inspired by the works of Cornelius Castoriadis, writes: "The problem with our civilisation is that it has stopped questioning itself. No society which forgets the art of asking questions or allows this art to fall into disuse can count on finding answers to the problems that beset it - certainly not before it is too late and the answers, however correct, have become irrelevant."

Zygmut and Castoriadis' observations are best exemplified by the lack of public discourse on the moral decay hurdling the South African society. Feelings of cynicism and indifference that have engulfed the South African public have been demonstrated by the absence of widespread debate on the social ills that continue to burden the country. Morally speaking, the country has shown evidence of decay.

The moral repugnance that South Africa is experiencing is perhaps best captured by the continued spate of gender-based violence against women. Described as the country's "second pandemic" by President Cyril Ramaphosa, gender-based violence in South Africa is still increasing at an alarming rate, making it one of the world's most unsafe places for women: according to statistics, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. Experts say much of such violence in South Africa is culturally rooted, with patriarchal attitudes entrenched by high levels of poverty and unemployment that leave women particularly vulnerable.

In addition to the GBV fight in the country, in both government and private sectors, there are high levels of corruption, fraud and dishonesty. Corruption has adversely affected service delivery, particularly concerning local government - resulting in violent protests. The issue could be argued to be that there is a political and moral concern for those who are elected as representatives.

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The Bill of Rights is, therefore, not merely an enumeration of rights, but implied in their limitations are the awesome responsibilities of citizenship. These values found in our Constitution are not merely the product of Western Christian civilisation since they have a much wider universality about them. As such, they are common to the great civilisations, philosophies and religions of the world, including the ideas of morality found in our indigenous African culture, known as ubuntu or humaneness. These values involve respect for human life and basic honesty in the way persons and officials act in communion with one another and the authorities.

This requires that persons must subject themselves to the authority of the state. Those in authority are obliged to exercise their powers under the Constitution and the law. The property and resources of the state must be optimally used for the benefit of all. The resources are not there for state officials to enrich themselves at the cost of the state and the citizens.

Unfortunately, since this is increasingly occurring, it constitutes corruption, fraud and dishonesty, and is therefore morally reprehensible. If we are intellectually and morally honest, we must admit that this is taking place to the prejudice of South Africa and its people, and that it needs a powerful strategy to counteract it. Indeed, it constitutes one of the most formidable moral and political challenges facing us as a nation.

Climate change 

Issues of morality even extend to climate change and South Africa is not immune to that. With a coal-driven energy sector, South Africa is positioned to have a high level of CO2 emissions due to coal combustion. It is, therefore, not unexpected that South Africa is the largest CO2 emitter in Africa, with its emission accounting for over 34% of all CO2 emitted in Africa. It is also the largest greenhouse gas emitter in Africa, while also being the 14th largest CO2 emitter in the world.

The science is clear - people have been the cause of much of the climate change and thus the challenges that we are seeing today and into the future. A just response to this situation requires not only for the global community, and especially developed countries, to do everything we can to mitigate climate change and help poor countries adapt, but we also need to take a long hard look at the root of the issue.

The system of ever-increasing consumption in developed countries is simply not sustainable for our planet, and until we can acknowledge this and change our way of thinking and living, we will continue on the same destructive path. We need to fundamentally change our relationship with the earth, from one of exploitation and consumption to a relationship of respect, care, protection and stewardship - the way that many religious teachings depict it should be.

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The moral, political and social issues in South Africa are interrelated and it is necessary to have a wide-ranging discourse and strategy on these. Democracy, although imperfectly and embryonically, has taken root in the native soil of South Africa and all three spheres of government.

Nevertheless, South Africa is confronted with formidable problems of a socio-economic nature. These problems cannot be addressed adequately if there is widespread corruption and dishonesty in the government and the private sector. It is for this reason that moral regeneration is essential in both the private and public sectors if we are to succeed as a nation.

As the government has failed to act decisively on this issue, the leaders of civil society must take the initiative and force South Africa's political leaders to act and address the problems.

 - Yanga Malotana is a Andrew Mellon Scholar, Communication Strategist and Research Assistant at the University of Pretoria. 

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