Opinionista Dain Peters 6 May 2014

Pistorius, Zuma, South Africa – when the moral centre doesn’t hold

At the recent Daily Maverick Gathering, prominent economist Iraj Abedian, of Pan-African Capital Holdings, proposed that whenever the underlying value system of a society is diluted or destroyed, corruption appears. In a heterogeneous society, he says, when the moral system is not defined and internalised when, for instance, integrity is not prioritised, corruption and crime occur.

A topical demonstration of his argument is seen in the recent Oscar Pistorius trial where the state prosecutor has made a point of highlighting the accused’s apparent inability to take responsibility for a string of incidents, and therefore, by implication, that he won’t take responsibility for murdering his girlfriend.

The notion of an individual not taking responsibility seems to have resonated strongly with many people.

Another poster boy for this lack of accountability is President Zuma. Both Pistorius and Zuma seem unable to restrain themselves or to take responsibility for their actions. They seem to have failed to internalise certain values that society insists on and have provoked much (self-righteous) outrage in society. It seems meaningful that the outrage around these two role-models should be so prominent in our country at present. What does it mean?

However, Abedian warns against the scapegoating of individuals or structures, emphasising the fact that these crimes could not occur without the support of a system which was itself riddled with corruption. He suggests that, while much of our attention is currently preoccupied with the corruption of the South African government and politicians, it must be remembered that the corruption is systemic and that no social organ is immune. All social units: academic, business, religious, even family, are implicated. He laments that there is much denial and, at times, defensiveness around this widespread corruption in society. “We know it but don’t discuss it and deal with it.”

The act of scapegoating is the process of projecting onto someone else unwanted aspects of ourselves. When we project our unwanted bits on others we tend to become enthralled by them, either with desire or disgust. Originally the goats were then eliminated, one was sacrificed and the other chased into the wilderness. Very often such scapegoating permits certain structural contradictions in society to remain unchallenged and this is how the term has come to be used. By such scapegoating, neglect, and complicity, structural and systemic corruption is allowed to fester within the body politic of the society. These include our attitudes towards, for instance, authority, gender, and wealth.

In both individuals and, it seems, in countries, such an experience is an attempt to redefine oneself more accurately and to set new limits that are broad enough to include greater diversity. Perhaps these current events under consideration are an invitation for us to hold both ourselves and our social structures more to account, rather than being mesmerised by scapegoats. This is not to say that such processes are not very expensively achieved. They are rarely without crisis and often involve great tragedy, as we are witnessing currently. What this emphasises is that we seem to need greater wholeness at any cost. We are compelled to take back our projections even if it involves great suffering.

A society bedevilled by systemic corruption, Abedian asserts, has a shortage of coherent ethical values. In other words it has had its centre knocked out. There is a lack of central agreement on a set of values. This creates a precarious position, the centre cannot hold. It destroys confidence in both self and the other, reducing the possibility of real relationship. Economically, he says, without this coherent and internalised set of defining moral values we fall short of social capital (even if we have financial and human capital) and our success as a country can proceed only in fits and starts. It cannot realise its true potential, it cannot be truly responsive and adaptive to circumstances. Any advances are ultimately unsustainable.

Individually when we lose our centres we tend to grasp at the external, heroic, and material, either by embodying these qualities ourselves or by worshipping them in others. Public opinion fills the vacuum and we tend to become reactive and impulsive rather than responsive. Substance abuse may become a way of dealing with the insecurity. While we long for connection, stability and belonging, we may find it increasingly difficult to commit to long-term relationships (in work and love), and tend towards quick-fixes, often using sex as an antidote for the lack of intimacy. While we long for guidance, we are sceptical of any authority and promote instead a self-sufficient individualism which is, paradoxically, conformist.

So, observing Pistorius and Zuma’s desperate and tragic attempts to maintain their particular false constructions of their selves, with their respective compensations of fast cars, beautiful women and big homesteads, we may allow ourselves to become a little dubious about these aspirations. The notions of responsibility and restraint have become prominent talking points in certain sectors of social media. These are not hip and groovy qualities and it is interesting that they have found traction. Certainly the juxtaposition of these two personages, Jacob and Oscar, encompass a great range of our diversity and perhaps it is this universality that has had some leverage of public opinion. Responsibility and restraint are certainly a great antidote to the tinseltown magic of the rags to riches stories that both these personages embody.

It seems helpful that such considerations, stimulated by the courtroom dramas and the approaching elections, draw such energy and become more prominent in social currency, and that these rather old-fashioned notions of restraint and responsibility become social memes. Rather than heroic celebrity, humanity becomes an aspiration and a guiding aesthetic. It is a process of being disillusioned into adulthood. After his death, it seems that we are now obliged to take back the positive qualities which we had projected onto Madiba, and it becomes apparent that the task of taking back our projections and becoming more human involves not only humbly taking ownership of our fallibility but also confidently reclaiming our beauty.

Perhaps, then, as a country with such a lauded Constitution sitting at the centre of its stated values, this is the process of the country internalising the value system from the ground up. As Sisonke Msimang argued so compellingly (also at the DM Gathering), we need to realise, sadly, that we aren’t exceptional. We cannot be protected from suffering. We have to do the work. With consciousness, compassion and courage and a little bit of luck, perhaps we can gradually learn to become human. DM

Dain Peters is a clinical psychologist and Jungian Analyst in private practice. He has worked with a number of NGOs such as the Trauma Centre, the Quaker Peace Centre and the Triangle Project. He is currently in private practice in Cape Town.