Nelson Mandela is celebrated globally on his birthday every year on 18 July. The former president, who is often described as a moral hero, moral example or moral role model, was a true example of the concept of a moral hero — someone who had the courage as an imperfect human to be committed to ethical and moral living.
How should ethical living be understood? The question has three dimensions. Ethics derives from the Greek word, ethos, which literally means habitat, a space where all life can flourish, a space where humans, plants, planets, animals and nature can blossom.
This first understanding of ethical living, therefore, entails that you are committed to making society a habitat, a safe space, where all of us can thrive. Our much-lauded Constitution spells out the features of the habitat that we envisage for South African society. These are inalienable dignity; the healing of the political, economic, ecological, social, physical, emotional, moral and spiritual wounds of the past and present; restitutive justice; responsible freedom and equality through equity.
The second meaning of ethical living refers to our habitus — the habits, virtues, tendencies, inclinations, intuitions and predispositions to embody what is wise, just, good, beautiful, lovely and praiseworthy. Over centuries, philosophical and religious traditions developed the so-called seven cardinal virtues. A cardinal virtue serves as an umbrella term for other virtues that relate to that specific virtue. Moreover, they are the anchors around which all virtues and all that is good, turn.
The virtues that our societies yearn for are public wisdom in contexts of complexity, ambiguity, tragedy and aporia (dead-end streets); public temperance and moderation (equilibrium ) in contexts of greed, gluttony and consumerism on the one hand, and poverty and alienation on the other hand; public fortitude amid situations of powerlessness, passivity and inertia; public faith and assurance amid feelings of disorientation and rootlessness in contemporary societies; public hope amid despair and melancholy; public love in societies where solidarity and compassion seem to be on the decrease; and public justice in contexts of inequalities and injustices.
The third dimension of ethical living refers to the Handlungen, the actions that we decide upon, that we choose and that we try to implement. Moral living, from the Latin word, mos, which literally means measure, refers to the quest to measure and discern between morally wise and unwise, right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, praiseworthy and disgusting.
Throughout his life, Madiba stayed committed to making South Africa and the world a habitat where the most vulnerable, in particular, can flourish. He embodied the aforementioned virtues and contributed to decisions, policies and actions that bring the habitat closer. And he distinguished clearly between, and called out, what is morally acceptable and morally reprehensible.
When he was director-general in the office of President Nelson Mandela, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel warned against the danger of portraying Madiba as a moral elite, as extraordinary, an exception, as someone who embodies values in a way that no other human can. Gerwel was concerned that we might say that high standards of moral living are reserved for the Madibas and Desmond Tutus of this world, and not for “normal” human beings.
Gerwel’s warning still rings true decades later. We dare not only speak nostalgically about role models such as Madiba. We need to investigate what they stood for and ensure that we embrace their inspiring and contagious moral legacy. We must drink from Madiba’s moral wells which are not only for the so-called moral elites and the exceptional, but for each one of us. We do not honour Mandela’s legacy rightly if we regard him as a moral elite. A moral role model is not a moral elite. Are the high levels of corruption in our society not, in part, attributable to the fact that forebearers like Nelson Mandela are portrayed as moral elites and moral exceptions?
We also dishonour him if we forget the moral fervour and passion with which he lived. One of the root causes of moral decline in our societies is the prevailing moral inertia, moral negligence and moral carelessness. We saw this inertia and carelessness in the manner in which former president Jacob Zuma and his followers, even some of his children, dealt with the recent finding and order of the Constitutional Court regarding his contempt of court. Where such moral inertia is tolerated, the doors are open for the destruction of societies, as we saw in the disgusting responses to Zuma’s incarceration.
If this moral recklessness among all of us is not rooted out, the building of South Africa as a habitat, especially for the most vulnerable, will remain a pipe dream. Amid moral carelessness, we need to remember Madiba’s inexhaustible moral care and moral carefulness as seen in his nurturing of moral actions and moral habits that bring forth a new habitat where all enjoy a life of dignity, healing, justice, freedom and equality. DM