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On Mandela Day, what we desperately need in South Afric...

Defend Truth


On Mandela Day, what we desperately need in South Africa is an ethics of responsibility


Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

Government at all levels has, with its often unethical and unwise decisions and actions during the past decade, imprisoned Mandela all over again. It trivialised the Struggle and diminished the sacrifices he and so many others have made.

On Mandela Day (18 July), people around the world not only commemorate Madiba’s birthday, but also honour him as a leader and celebrate his courage and talents, especially his insight, wisdom, and moral character.

But the commemoration of this day also calls us to reflect on where we find ourselves in terms of, among other things, Mandela’s wisdom and ethics.

Sadly, in South Africa, the ANC government and its cronies have betrayed Mandela’s wisdom and ethics during the past decade or two. We saw how politicians have used their official positions to accumulate wealth, power, and status for themselves.

We have seen how state failures manifested in deadly unrests and looting; we experienced bad service delivery; we saw an alarming increase in poverty, inequality, unemployment, violent crimes, gender-based violence, and violence against vulnerable groups; and we witnessed the deterioration in quality education and in several aspects of the country’s healthcare services.

In short, I think the government at all levels has, with its often unethical and unwise decisions and actions over the past decade, imprisoned Mandela all over again. It trivialised the Struggle and diminished the sacrifices he and so many others have made. It reinforced the powers of domination, manipulation, and dispossession.

In 1993, during a Cosatu conference, Madiba warned: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”

This was, and still is, a very serious call.

An ethics of responsibility

There comes a time in struggles for freedom, dignity, and justice when we must acknowledge the transformative power of ethics and wisdom. Now is such a time.

What we desperately need in South Africa is an ethics of responsibility. According to South African philosopher Anton van Niekerk, such an ethic consists of three central ideas: (1) It requires us to make room for the possibility of failure; (2) it takes cognisance of the consequences of our current acts; in other words, it focuses on the future; and (3) it is about practical wisdom, or the essence of moral knowledge.

We constantly have to, inter alia, make moral, political and economic decisions, and sometimes we get it wrong, because we cannot postpone certain decisions indefinitely. We must act “in the light available to us”. And sometimes that light ís available, but we still make mistakes.

However, very important, an ethics of responsibility requires that we will always be willing to honestly provide reasons and explanations for our decisions and actions.

As political leaders and moral agents, we must develop the insight and maturity to admit when the reasons for our decisions and actions were inadequate, and always be prepared to accept responsibility for them, particularly in the sense of accepting blame or even penalties.

We seek truth beyond reasonable doubt, and for this transparency and honesty are needed.

The second central idea of an ethics of responsibility is that we cannot focus on values that only consider circumstances and interests of human beings in the present. We need to consider the future and the consequences of our current decisions and actions on coming generations. Norwegian philosopher Hein Berdinesen says in this respect: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine life.”

What happens today must at all costs try to make the future better and liveable, particularly for those who currently suffer terribly. Fortunately, as German philosopher Ernst Bloch reminds us, we are hoping animals, we dream forward.

True ethical behaviour is not only transparent, it not only takes responsibility for consequences, but also aspires to practical knowledge. The latter enables us to prudently deal with many (challenging) situations in our daily lives.

Practical wisdom helps us to lead a good, flourishing life, and becomes possible through deliberation. Without prudence, according to French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, “the other virtues are merely good intentions that pave the way to hell”.

The ‘other’ as unconditional appeal

According to another French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the “other” has an unconditional appeal to us. This means that we will always have their interests at heart. We are accountable not only to others, but also to the environment within which all of us must survive.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Vetlesen reasons in this regard that “unborn individuals cannot stand up and claim their rights… Yet this empirical fact… does not exclude them as addressees of our responsibility. Their basic right is the right to life on an ecologically inhabitable planet; lest we be careful they will never see the light of day at all.”

With respect to this, Levinas further argues that I am “responsible for a total responsibility, which answers for all in the others, even for their responsibility. The ‘I’ always has one responsibility more than all the others”.

Mandela epitomised an ethics of responsibility with his transparency, moral character, and wisdom. If we really want to free Mandela and others, whom we have incarcerated through our irresponsible and unwise decisions and actions, we’ll have to create a country in which people feel safe; where we enhance democracy and do not trample on the rights of people; where individuals and political parties are not allowed to build their own empires; where there will not be economic exploitation and human degradation; where there will be no ethnic superiority or artificial cloaks covering naked racism; and where unjustly acquired positions of privilege by repressing violently the weak, the exploited and the needy will not be allowed.  

The time has come for South Africans to rise to the occasion – by regenerating, renewing, and changing how we behave, relate to one another, act, and communicate – in a manner that will put us on a trajectory towards the kind of country Mandela and so many others envisioned – a country that knows the maxim of prudence is: Take responsibility! DM

Dr Chris Jones is chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology and Head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.



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  • I agree with the sentiment of this article but I refuse to celebrate any one person’s “wisdom and ethics”. I much prefer to live by pragmatic, secular, timeless principles that do not carry the taint of human fallibility with them.

    I also think the idea of responsibility of action tends to be more strongly associated with the individualistic side of the political arena (conservatism, minarchism, anarchism) as well as being notably absent in the other collectivist sides. Unfortunately for us, many of the indigenous African cultures and political movements tend heavily towards the collectivist persuasions (communism, fascism etc) which implies that either their conception of responsibility itself is very different from that of individualists, or their polity is outright incompatible with it.

    Good luck trying to motivate South Africans to take responsibility when, like the word ‘equality’, can mean different things to different people.

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