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We must realign morality, justice and politics – and...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

We must realign morality, justice and politics – and look unflinchingly at the truth

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

How do we realign morality and politics? Is this what Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to do? The spiritual decay and moral decrepitude are crippling our spirit and souls, and having a very negative impact on our everyday lives. The socioeconomic strife of millions is evidence of this and, on top of it all, racism is infused into our functioning.

I recently listened to a podcast on the topic of morality in politics, an interesting conversation between Marianne Williamson and Dr Cornel West, and found it not only fascinating but, as always, very instructive to our own politics in South Africa. 

To bring morality into politics one must ask: what does that mean? It’s clear to me that it was no accident that the ANC was founded by God-fearing people… this was a time when the spiritual and the political were clearly aligned, something so very missing in modern day South Africa, hence the moral decay into corruption, State Capture and continuing racism.

We all know the body politic at this point in time, we all understand the extent of the problematique, no doubt, and we all know – I hope – that we have to confront it at some point. With the South African experiment we must tell the truth, yet we must find the best as well: our ethical leaders over time, such as Luthuli, Tambo, Albertina Sisulu and Mandela, to mention a few; our literary figures and their contributions, Coetzee, Gordimer, Krog, Alexander, Serote, Ndebele and so many more; our celebrated Constitution and Bill of Rights; and, of course, our ubuntu as a people.

West tells us that hope is a verb. We have to work at it. I agree when he says “the youth are so tired of the fakes, the phonies and the frauds… acting, posing and posturing is what they observe from our politicians”.  The fire is living, my friends.

So, what can we do? How do we realign morality and politics? Is this what Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting to do? The spiritual decay and moral decrepitude are crippling our spirit and souls, and most certainly having a very negative impact on our everyday lives. The socioeconomic strife of millions is evidence of this and on top of it all, racism is infused into our functioning.

West says, “love the truth, it’s gonna be very painful and very difficult but you got to love the truth… with your white privilege and so much more.  Everyone recognises the wrong, of course, but surely it cannot stop there?  They ask as do I, the pertinent question, ‘how do we move from recognition to genuine repentance?’ They remark that, ‘Germany has donated $84-billion to Jewish organisations, it doesn’t mean the Holocaust did not happen, but a recognition over the years, a reconciliation, is what matters, no?’

“Repentance is a spiritual movement within the heart… we cannot have political healing without that movement within the heart. We now must certainly move from recognition to repentance to real restitution and reparations. Repairing of the wrong. And there are, of course, many ways we could do this. Through politics and legislation, through culture and education.”

However, it is critical to remember there will not be unity in South Africa without repentance.

Beethoven remarked that “every morning I look unflinchingly at the grimness and darkness of the world and still muster the courage to love the truth, to love beauty”. This is what we too require, to look unflinchingly at the truth here in South Africa and to act.

West reminds us that “justice is a matter of fair treatment and if it’s only justice for its own sake it soon degenerates into something less than justice. You have got to have deep care and concern at the centre of justice for it to be true justice and not become idle. Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love looks like in private.” Better yet, he states so eloquently, “there is a price to pay for speaking the truth. There is a bigger price for living a lie.”

Why do so many white people in South Africa not have this understanding, and why are they so much in denial? What must we do to make them see and have this understanding? These were among the questions. The response: “Well, they need different exemplars, inspirations and different role models from which they measure themselves. We live in a world where those exemplars are highly successful money makers, conspicuous consumption types, who live in a world of glitz and blitz and superficiality. And they miss out on greatness.” What is often called “the tyranny of merit”.

Rich people get respect but they are often also thought of as intelligent, smart. Why? “Because they make a lot of money and they don’t get caught when they are obviously doing wrong, breaking the law. It’s survival of the slickest.” The 13th commandment: “Thou shall not get caught.” Look at the 2008 financial crash, insider trading, market manipulation, predatory lending, fraudulent activities, no one got caught, no one was held responsible – they must be smart. I want to be like them.”

Williamson and West further elucidate this point, “can you imagine any society trying to sustain itself in a democratic mould, in which the elevation of its heroes are the slickest, and most clever and smartest at making money, getting around the law, dominating others? That’s a sick society.” We in South Africa have a sick society. And then we call these types of people the most qualified. They are the most qualified to get us out of the mess we’re in. Is this the discontinuity of history (the South African miracle?)

We have, of course, as one measure tried to redress some of these failings, one of which is the BBBEE legislation and affirmative action policies to try to assist black South Africans with their upward mobility in society. “The difference between race-based policies (BBBEE) and reparations is that the latter carry that inherent mea culpa in a way that race-based policies do not. Race-based policies acknowledge the economic gap but don’t acknowledge how we got there. In other words, there is no inherent mea culpa. Often race-based policies become the vehicles for the middle class and not for the people on the ground, the poor and working class.”

I’m always so gobsmacked to observe that one of the darkest elements of neo-liberalism is apologising for human despair. This is why West reminds us: “Don’t be surprised by evil and don’t be paralysed by despair.” Black South Africans often measure progress by looking at other blacks and checking how many are successful, how many make lots of money, what cars they drive and where their kids go for an education, and forget about progress of the black masses, unemployment, not enough jobs with a living wage, decrepit education, and so much more. Are we indeed measuring the right stuff, the important stuff?

Beethoven remarked that “every morning I look unflinchingly at the grimness and darkness of the world and still muster the courage to love the truth, to love beauty”. This is what we too require, to look unflinchingly at the truth here in South Africa and to act.

We have to do this collectively; we cannot always want to place our humanity at the doorstep of an individual. We cannot always yearn for a Mandela. 

“To live, after all, is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

Morality in politics, like we once had – we can get there, you know. DM

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All Comments 5

  • Difficult to understand the point here. Referring to whites as a group does the argument a disservice. Time to look forward, to incentivise those who take risk, work hard and create jobs and to stop socio-economic engineering. It was wrong before and is wrong now.

  • If ever there was waffle in an opinion piece, this is it. A lot of unclear concepts in a pot, mixed, stirred and boiled to a brew that tastes like…well, nothing in particular. Perhaps my whiteness prevents me from understanding what the author tried to argue.

  • Good of Oscar to turn our attention subtly away from the sea of ANC corruption we are currently floundering in, and focus instead on restitution.

  • I honestly and truthfully find myself totally confused with comments such as “real restitution and reparations” what is this? Please explain what you believe and expect restitution and reparation to be!

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