Defend Truth


Our mirror: Bicycles, water, power, Zuma?

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ (entered the Jesuits 2001; ordained 2006) is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

We don’t like what we see our politicians doing. Is it because they remind us too much of ourselves?

The City of Johannesburg has not had it easy in the past few weeks; power and water cuts have left many residents irate. And, like so many things in South Africa, one never quite knows who should be held accountable for the problems – City of Jo’burg, City Power, Eskom, Randwater or cable theives? It’s anyones guess, as fingers point in every direction. There is a long list of laundry items which are worthy of complaint in the Metro – street lights that don’t work, potholes, unusable pavements and basic maintenance that isn’t done. It can be quite depressing. But, despite all this, there is a new development in the Metro that is worth saluting: the introduction of dedicated cycle lanes.

I was rather enthusiastic when I saw the finishing touches being added to the cycle lanes. For a brief time I was so overwhelmed by enthusiasm that I reconsidered my decision not to buy a bicycle a few years ago! You have to have a pretty steady nerve to ride a bicycle in South Africa. In Cape Town there are regular reports of cyclists knocked over or killed even though the City has specially demarcated bike lanes.

I could think of many advantages to the newly installed green bicycle lanes. Obviously they encourage people to cycle to work and, if used widely, like they are in many cities in Europe, Asia and the USA, will certainly make a significant contribution to limiting traffic congestion. When you have bought the bicycle you save on rising transport costs – you only need a good breakfast and maintaining a bike is much cheaper than a car! For people who live busy and pressured lives, cycling to work can also help save time and support a healthy lifestyle; you don’t have to squeeze in that extra hour each day to go to gym – you get to work and get exercise! Biking reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions – therefore you can proudly tick the box and know that you are also doing your bit for the planet.

This initiative, if utilised by many Jo’burgers, will have positive spin-offs for individuals, the local community and the environment. The City of Johannesburg – or whoever initiated this – should be congratulated (even in a time when we may not necessarily feel like using that word, but let’s try to be balanced!)

Then my enthusiasm waned and I wondered if this really was a good initiative. I was driving along Jorissen Street past the Origins Centre at WITS University and noticed that workers were laying yellow ripple-like barriers on the tar between the bicycle lane and the car lane – ones similar to the well-known Rea Vaya bus lanes. These are to prevent cars from driving into the demarcated green bicycle lane and, I guess, stop cyclists from riding abreast. Despite this, further down the road, I noticed how many cars (not the taxis we all love to hate!) had crossed over the yellow barrier and were parked across the bicycle lane so that no cyclists could use the lane at all. What then is the point of the capital outlay for such a project when people are going to blatantly disregard it? I wondered: Is this symbolic of how so many of us have become?

This week, besides the water and electrical problems in the Metro, we have been inundated with stories of corruption every day. Our honourable president was splashed across the front pages of a Sunday newspaper last week as more details of his alleged personal benefits from the arms deal were revealed. We heard how the ANC is hell-bent on protecting him from answering important questions (and ones that taxpayers have the right to have answered) about his pad in Nkandla. He has also taken a bashing for his apparent involvement in what seems to be a hush-hush nuclear energy deal with Russia. The president’s spin team have certainly worked overtime this week.

He was not the only politician in the hot seat. Firebrand EFF leader, Julius Malema, made a court appearance on tax evasion and money laundering charges. Ironically, a few weeks ago we witnessed the most entertaining session of Parliament this year when Malema and his comrades caused major disruption when he himself was shouting at Zuma “Pay back the money”!

And so it goes. Day after day there is another story of some or other corrupt deal or relationship. These are all followed by the usual denial or blame. It’s not difficult to find examples. Many of us witness these events with a good dose of cynicism, anger, resignation or disillusionment. Some South Africans are negative about politicians and many would agree that they have have lost their moral conscience. We are familiar with the discourse – we too may use it: “Millions of South Africans live in abject poverty. Those in power loot the public coffers – money that could be used for poverty relief. It’s a shame. It’s morally objectionable!”

Are our political leaders morally bankrupt or are they simply the mirror we see ourselves in? It’s certainly not the self-portrait we like.

Back to the bicycle lanes. One simple fact remains: we can put as many structures and as much infrastructure into place as we want. If we don’t choose to live with some personal moral integrity all our other structural efforts are useless. The taxpayers’ money that has been allegedly diverted into Nkandla and the Merc parked across the bicycle lane are not the same in category, perhaps, and certainly will not have the same far-reaching effect. They both, however, point to an underlying selfish, couldn’t-care-less, to-hell-with-other-people attitude that seems to be the common default position of many South Africans.

When we drive like hooligans, park over bicycle lanes, go out drinking and still get behind the wheel, walk across the road against a red light or where there’s no pedestrian crossing, don’t study and use the opportunities when our parents or sponsors are paying, underpay our employees, steal from our employers by surfing the internet or playing on Facebook for hours, hand in dishonest tax-returns, rip people off by charging inflated prices, we too act in a morally objectionable way. The outcomes may not be the same (in our own minds) and as far-reaching as the ministers in government that loot the coffers but, in essence, the selfish, couldn’t give a damn attitude lurks behind our objectionable actions as much as it does theirs. We are no different. Blood is red.

We cannot demand moral integrity from those in public office when we ourselves don’t act with integrity and live with a strong sense of our own personal ethical responsibility towards other people – no matter who they are. If we parked across the bicycle lane our attitude stinks too.

The so-called “slippery slope” does not begin when senior politicians lose their moral conscience and don’t know how to behave. It begins when no one cares and everyone behaves objectionably. That is, I suggest, more worrying than anything Messrs Zuma or Malema may have done.

Thanks for the bicycle lanes, City of Jo’burg. Do you have any other new initiatives that might help us reconstruct our personal moral integrity? DM


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