The moral fibre of South African society, or lack thereof, came under the spotlight during the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Motion after motion of no confidence and the nation watched as corruption and looting continued unabated right before our eyes. One can still hear the echoes of voices discontent with the fact that members of the ANC (African National Congress) refused to vote out a president who was clearly enabling corruption. For the first time in the democratic era, South African citizens were powerless to intervene, despite the public outcry and the stuttering economy.
This reluctance of ANC comrades reminded me of an unwritten law during my schooling years, which outranked any other written law in the school system, bible, or in the country. Whatever it was you did, there was one thing you could never do; you simply didn’t snitch! Now for those who are less familiar with millennial slang, ‘snitching’ can pretty much be equated with whistle blowing, or ratting out.
The impact of this rule on the greater rule of law at school at the time was interesting. Within the adolescent community at school, it was much worse to be a snitch than to be a thief. You could watch someone stealing a fellow student’s food, or clothing and if you ever told the relevant authorities, your action of snitching would be treated with greater disdain than the theft in itself (or any other crime). In order to safely navigate such an environment, you had to hear nothing, see nothing, and most importantly say nothing.
The consequences of snitching could be dire. The snitch would be cast out and stigmatised, and in most cases punished for being untrustworthy and deceitful. In addition, for the more aggressive, catching a snitch was definitely one good opportunity to give a beat down. Such consequences, in an environment of 1,000+ other teenage boys provided enough motivation to keep your mouth shut. Even further, it was enough to know that others would keep their mouths shut too, allowing you to get away with a bad thing or two and have the confidence that as long as no teachers caught you, your transgressions would remain undercover. That’s all it took for the cycle of sheer rebellion to triumph.
In the adult world, snitching can have a much bigger cost than simply being a social outcast or catching a blue eye. For example, the treatment of Makhosi Khoza after her public utterances against corruption in the ANC, demonstrates the cost of snitching as an adult. She lost her job, her standing within the party, and basically cut her political career short as a result. This is a somewhat harsh punishment for someone who stood up for what’s right rather than allowing an array of crimes to occur. As such, snitching as an adult may even be worse than at school, depending on the power dynamics at play.
Such outcomes create a tangible fear of snitching. This fear skews conceptions of what is wrong or right and replaces it with what is best to protect personal interests, to maintain peace, trust, unity and camaraderie, and more. It further creates a cloak of invisibility that enables people to also do bad things here and there, without facing the legal or any other consequences that should be attributed to such actions (or crimes).
What is more striking about the “no snitching” rule is the culture it creates of silence and turning a blind eye, and the cost of this silence. We are all familiar with the quote by Edmund Burke that says that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This speaks in a broad sense about the societal cost of people choosing to remain silent about crimes and other socially destructive practises and actions.
In the school environment, the impact of silence was greater than we ourselves could see. This is due to the fact that when it came to the larger systemic issues, there was a significant reluctance to expose and stand up against practises in the school such as initiation, abuse (both of students and teachers), unfair discrimination through the use of hate speech, and the promotion of racial prejudices in all spheres. In many cases, the victims of which often became perpetrators who partook in one or the other socially destructive practise. Because of this silence, years later, many of these issues continue to affect the generations that followed us because our generation never truly confronted them.
We are beginning to see a similar impact of the culture of silence and its cost in the world at large. The recent #MeToo movement has begun to expose the abuse that women and men have been living with all around the world. It has also exposed the fact that in many cases, others were aware of such abuses and did nothing to expose or stop them. This abuse had an adverse impact on the victims careers and general well-being. On the other hand, the silence allowed the perpetrators to continue to abuse more people unabated, for what in some cases was dozens of years.
Therefore, although it may seem that silence allows for better personal outcomes, it has an indirect impact on the lives of others and on societal outcomes such as social cohesion and the rule of law. In the South African context, the majority of studies conducted on sexual and physical abuse identify under reporting as a significant impediment to addressing the systemic issues and apprehending perpetrators, indicating that silence is an impediment to justice.
Perhaps it is time we as a society reflected on whether we will allow crime, corruption and abuse to be characteristics that define the society of the generations that will come after us. It all starts with what we value today as people, and we must further reflect on what that actually is: is it the advancement of our country and continent both socially and economically, or our own advancement at the cost to our society at large?
Will we allow our silence to disfigure our society and rob the next generations of a secure, happy and functional society or will we stand up and rid our environments of its cancerous practises and crimes. In the age of social media and free flow of information, the conditions for exposing injustice are conducive. The tools for putting an end to this silence are literally in our hands. DM