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21 August 2014 10:06 (South Africa)
Opinionista David Gemmell

Conscience, such a lonely word

  • David Gemmell
Does everyone have a conscience? If so, how did the ANC lose its collective conscience with such obvious and all-consuming ease?

If you ask your computer to look up the word “conscience” it comes up with, “sense of right and wrong; scruples; principles; ethics”. Conscience has also been described as a judgement of the intellect that determines whether one’s actions are right or wrong with reference to certain values; or the feeling of remorse that arises when one does something that goes against those values.

The various religious views of what constitutes conscience generally consider it to be a morality or honesty or goodness for doing good or charitable acts that is inherent in humans. Secular views generally consider conscience as genetically determined, with subject matter learned or imprinted at some stage of growing up.

So, are we all born with a conscience or do we first learn the difference between good and evil, and then develop a morality? In other words, the old nature-vs-nurture argument.

I definitely know I have a conscience. So often has it kept me awake, agonising over some stupid thing I have done that I couldn’t possibly dismiss its existence. Although I’m not sure if I was born with it or if I learned it as a child. My parents did make a point of teaching me wrong and right, but whenever I committed a completely “new” bit of immoral behaviour (I was quite creative), I always seemed instinctively to know it was wrong, even before I later found out in no uncertain terms from my irate father that it was unacceptable.

But the more I think about the topic, the more I wonder if it is a universal attribute. Does everybody have a conscience? And if so, why do so many people appear to be able to act contrary to it, yet still sleep like babies, remain happy and irritatingly self-satisfied?

More and more I ask myself, is there a simple way of switching the conscience off so I too can act contrary to my values and still sleep well? The activities available to me should I be able to neutralise that little voice within, certainly appeal to my more decadent instincts. It has been said that a conscience is what hurts when all your other parts feel good – so wouldn’t it be nice to turn off the pain and keep the rest?

Which comes back to my question: Does everybody have a conscience? When it comes to the ANC government it certainly doesn’t seem like it. Its collective conscience, if it exists, appears extraordinarily difficult to detect.

At the moment, it is impossible to engage with the popular media in this country, without coming across a plethora of articles on corrupt practices in and by government. But, I hear you cry, that happens in every country – it’s a universal thing. Sure. But what astounds me about the corruption in our government, is the sheer scale of it. It would appear there are no or very, very few honest people engaged in running South Africa.

Think about it - it is quicker to list the departments and politicians not involved in nefarious deeds, than it is those under a cloud of suspected financial and other impropriety, simply because the list is so much shorter.

Now Catholicism considers conscience as, "a judgment of reason, which at the appropriate moment enjoins a person to do good and to avoid evil". So where is this “judgement of reason” for example, when it comes to the ANC’s investment in Hitachi? It seems no matter how much the press screams about a conflict of interest, the lure of the cash is strong enough to suppress ANC’s collective conscience.

To be fair, it didn’t seem to have the same effect on the consciences of Barbara Hogan and Pravin Gordhan who are in favour of the ANC divesting from Hitachi.

And what of everyone’s favourite faux politician – Julius Malema? Can he possibly have a conscience? As one reads the never-ending editorials about his tenderpreneurship and other disreputable exploits and balances those against his professed support for the poor, underprivileged members of the electorate, it is patently obvious from the never-ending contradictions, he cannot possibly own that attribute - a conscience.

Or could there be a more sinister portent in the current behaviour of the ANC in general, and Julius Malema in particular?

I found this extract in Wikipedia:

“Hannah Arendt in her study of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, notes that the accused, as with almost all his fellow Germans, had lost track of his conscience to the point where they hardly remembered it; this wasn't caused by familiarity with atrocities, or by psychologically redirecting any resultant natural pity to themselves for having to bear such an unpleasant duty, so much as by the fact that anyone whose conscience did develop doubts could see no one, no one at all, who shared them: Eichmann did not need to close his ears to the voice of conscience...not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a ‘respectable voice’, with the voice of the respectable society around him."

Tell me you did not get just a little nervous reading it.

With any luck there are still sufficient individuals (who have just avoided publicity so far) in government in possession of working consciences, who will sometime soon enjoin the ANC that now is the appropriate moment for it to listen carefully to whatever scintilla of conscience it has left. So that it will hopefully discover a judgement of reason that will enjoin it to stop its current headlong plunge into kleptocracy and start doing what it knows is right.

  • David Gemmell
gemmell opinionista 02

David grew up in the Free State, where his father worked on the gold mines. He has variously been a barman, labourer, truck driver, roughneck, trader, project manager and is now a full time writer.

He has had a column in Business Day and the now demised Weekender. David has an unusual talent for making people open up to him, which he later turns into a gripping read. He gained nationwide fame after he completed the biography of Joost van der Westhuizen, Joost: The Man in the Mirror. He has recently completed a biography on Father Stan Brennan, Colour Blind Faith.


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