Defend Truth


Why conscience matters


Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu is a Soweto-born Catholic cleric, lecturer, writer, poet and speaker, and arts enthusiast. He has written for Spotlight Africa, Daily Maverick, The Thinker, The Huffington Post, News24, The Southern Cross and The South African. He is a lecturer in the theology department at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is chairperson of the Choral Music Archive NPC, a trustee of the St Augustine Education Foundation Trust and an advisory council member of the Southern Cross Weekly. He was listed by the Mail & Guardian in the South African Top 200 Young South Africans list 2016. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Youth Trailblazer Award from the Gauteng provincial government.

Who would have thought that there would come a time when the conscience would be pitted against the interests of a political party? This is what we have come to.

It is very hard to be indifferent in these very trying times for our country. Although some of us have tried, without success, to just sit this one out and hope for the best – that some common sense will prevail and a new direction will emerge – it has become very clear that this new direction is going to need all hands on the deck.

It is one thing when political parties are bickering, as they continuously do; it is another case altogether when we are faced with issues that threaten the livelihood of our people. No one should be indifferent to social justice. The scale of our problems is so great that in fact what we are going through is an overhaul of everything that we have come to know and stand for. What has scared me most is that not only are we in a time of political and economic uncertainty but the very basic moral principle, through which one navigates that which is right from that which is wrong, is also under threat.

Who would have thought that there would come a time when the conscience would be pitted against the interests of a political party? This is what we have come to. When statements like “no member of Parliament got there through his conscience but rather all members are there because of the ANC” are uttered. Those were the words of Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in her address at the ANC Youth League rally in Germiston last week.

This kind of separation (duality) of the moral person and the position of the party is not an idea to be pinned squarely on Minister Mokonyane’s shoulders because it has been a serious tension in the ANC and indeed in politics in general. Unfortunately, Minister Mokonyane summed this view up in her utterances and has left some of us in complete shock.

There is a certain myopia which sees every situation as being contained to the present moment. For some strange reason, some have forgotten that the anti-apartheid, anti-colonial and anti-slavery movement began not in Luthuli House but in the uneasiness of the conscience. It could have been so easy for many people, especially those activists across the world, to say that apartheid had nothing to do with them and be indifferent to the suffering of Africans, but their consciences would not let them. It is the conscience that heightens the awareness of every activist. It is the conscience that sets apart that which is right from that which wrong. It is that conviction, that uneasiness often persuaded by external evidence, that moves the activist to action. 

Those of us of optimistic persuasion often assume that maybe people who defend and support such views (superiority of party politics against superiority of the conscience) do not really understand exactly what they are talking about.

The word “conscience” is derived from the Latin word conscientia which translates as “with knowledge”. What this means is that it refers to an awareness or a moral standard through which one makes decisions concerning his or her own actions. Granted, there is a view that holds that the conscience can be both informed and uninformed. For example, there are persons who make decisions without an awareness of the possible consequences. However, in the current situation in South Africa ignorance cannot be an excuse because of the many voices which have been continuously trying to bring awareness of implications to decisions.  None of the ANC members, including their president, can claim that they did not know that their actions would lead to the country being downgraded to junk status and many other situations. 

The 13th century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of the authority of the conscience and he regarded it as an application of moral knowledge to a particular case. It is an act of judgement which interests itself with our innate awareness of the absolute good. (Summa Theologica. I, q. 79, a. 13).

Interestingly, although many thinkers including John Henry Newman spoke of the conscience in religious categories – as the voice of God – he (Newman) also referred to the conscience as “a law of the mind” and it is not just something which is obeyed because of a reward from God but rather it is an indication of what is right.

Although the views of Newman and Aquinas are a bit more nuanced that what is presented here, what can be deduced from these thoughts is that following the conscience is a duty to the self and to humanity. Following the conscience is also about adherence to the self. Therefore, to act against the conscience is a betrayal of the principles that one stands for. Worse still for a person of faith, it is a silencing of the voice of God.

The conscience is that personal barometer through which one measures his own discretion against or together with social views. In every rational person, therefore, there should always be this continuous movement between what they feel, sense and/or know to be right versus others’ views outside themselves. In this way, a responsible person engages the views of society together his or her own convictions in order to act most justly. 

Before someone claims that I am applying Western categories to African problems, because the state of our conversation has come to that, it is important for me to add that the notion of the conscience is found even in our own African culture. In the Zulu culture to have unembeza (conscience) is the highest act of a virtuous person. In fact, in the Zulu language unembeza is such a strong concept that it goes even beyond just wrong and right, it the very essence of humanity. It is not just a subjective agent which is sometimes the key criticism of the Western understanding of conscience. The absence of unembeza is in fact an absence of the fundamental principle that makes a person a person.

The African scholar Ifeanyi Menkiti, in his paper Person and Community in African Traditional Thought, makes a very interesting point that in many African societies, “personhood is something at which individuals could fail, at which they could be competent or ineffective”. The absence of the faculty of conscience (unembeza) is one such instance – a failure in personhood.

There is a serious danger in imploring people to act against their conscience. The fact that this type of conversation can exist in public is an indication of how deep in crisis our country is. The conscience is the precursor of all justice action. It is un imaginable that someone who finds themselves in a corrupt environment can choose not to say anything because being a whistle-blower is not the reason why they were hired, or something along those lines.

To even dare to say to a Member of Parliament that their conscience did not place them in Parliament but their political party did is the greatest display of recklessness. Many of us are led to believe that the reason why anyone chooses to become a public servant is to serve the public and advance all that which makes society thrive. That vision is far greater than a political party. A polity that forgets this fact is simply self-destructing and lacks a collective conscience – that gauge which gears itself towards the common good. DM


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