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Ethical options for citizens of a country in crisis as the 2024 elections draw closer

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Dr Sarah Setlaelo holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Johannesburg. She is a writer, researcher and speaker in social, political, moral and comparative philosophy, as well as feminist theory.

What if we voted in 2024, not from a place of fearing ‘Apartheid 2.0’, but rather from choosing representatives who offered the best chance in terms of intention, outcome, practicality, and synchronicity of individuals and communities?

South Africa is in crisis. For a country that is in peacetime and not at war, so much is wrong that many wonder how much longer it will take before we are in a state of anarchy.

Our brand of political and social instability is not caused by the usual coups, totalitarianism, authoritarianism or fundamentalism that plague many of our sister African countries.

Our adversary looks and speaks like us. Our nemesis understands our historical struggle and present conditions. Our foe liberated us in the “flag freedom” sense. Our particular problem is our own government and its private-sector associates.

I am not one to cast aspersions on the state based on propaganda, populism or scapegoating. The African National Congress (ANC), the oldest liberation movement in Africa dating back to 1912, is arguably a preeminent symbol of diplomacy, astute leadership, and political savvy that should go down in history for its ingenuity in brokering a (relatively) peaceful transition from the minority apartheid regime to a constitutional majority-rule democracy.

Unlike bloody transitions such as those of many African states, somehow our country became a black-run democracy without the carnage that many other countries had to suffer when foreign settlers were expelled.

The demand for sovereignty by African nationalists was captured explicitly in the Freedom Charter drafted in 1955. The charter became the guiding constitution of the ANC, and informed the new democratic Constitution of 1996. The preamble of the charter includes the undertaking that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

However, I can’t help but reflect on philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s warning about what he refers to as the limitations of “positive freedom” as opposed to the enabling potential of “negative freedom”. Berlin defines positive freedom as the source of control or interference that determines what a subject can do or be in a state. It pertains to authority, self-rule and the presence of control.

For example, a person could be said to have positive freedom when they attain a driver’s licence that makes them free to control a vehicle and steer it through public spaces to their desired destination.

This is contrasted with negative freedom that pertains to the area within which the subject is left to do or be what they want, without human interference. Using the same analogy of a driver’s licence, a person has negative freedom if they can drive a vehicle to any destination without obstructions and interference from other motorists or roadblocks.

Berlin states that from the perspective of positive freedom, sovereignty is the possession by all members of society of a share in public power, which is entitled to interfere with all aspects of their lives. He traces this link between freedom in a positive sense and sovereignty back to the French Revolution. He says that this was the “eruption of the desire for ‘positive’ freedom of collective self-direction on the part of a large body of Frenchmen who felt liberated as a nation, even though the result was, for a good many of them, a severe restriction of individual freedoms”.

South African politician Pallo Jordan also attributes the origins of what became known in South Africa as the “National Question” to revolutionary movements of “multinational states of 19th century Europe” in his paper in the ANC journal Umrabulo, titled “ABC’s on what the National Question entails (2019).

For Jordan, the foundations of the National Question include the notions of democracy, equality, free citizens and dismantling the structures that entrenched the oppressed-oppressor system, similar to the French Revolution.

These notions constitute the ideal of sovereignty, insofar as the oppressed demand liberation from oppressive powers. In addition, they value equality in their capacity as free citizens who have common characteristics such as “geography, language, culture and ethnos”.

It is important to note that Berlin is critical of the positive sense of freedom because even when the group gains sovereignty, nothing prevents the individual members of the “indivisible self” still being oppressed by the whole.

Berlin adds, in reference to philosopher John Stuart Mill, that “government by the people was not, in his sense, necessarily freedom at all”. This is because, as Berlin contends, those who govern are not necessarily the same people as those who are governed, and democratic self-government is not the government “of each by himself” but, at best, of “each by the rest”.

This concern is certainly relevant in the South African context. How did we get to a place where the ideal “whole” (represented by a ruling party given legitimate power to govern) seems to be a nemesis to those who voted these representatives into power? I think that, as per Berlin’s concern, the individual got lost within the positive freedom-based indivisible self and was thus immobilised from accessing their negative freedom.

It is my view that sovereignty has not benefitted all South Africans because some members of the indivisible self are still being oppressed by the representatives of the whole. So perhaps it is time for citizens to invoke their negative freedom because positive freedom, after almost 30 years, seems to have fallen short. I can imagine that the next question would be, “How can we do this?”

Fortunately, philosophy comes to our rescue. Moral and ethical philosophers spanning centuries since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and closer to home, John Mbiti, Mogobe Ramose, Kwame Gyekye and Ifeanyi Menkiti, among others, have devoted their scholarship to crafting various ethical theories aimed at securing the common good.

I am of the opinion that none of the ethical theories could effectively address the shortcomings of the social contract on their own, where individuals or citizens relinquish some of their indivisible power to political representatives. It is through a combination of the practice of several predominant ethical theories that, together, they can give citizens their power back.

Let me explain. There are at least four ethical theories that could find purchase in the South African context – consequentialism, deontology, pragmatism and ubuntu. Let me explain further.

Deontological ethics emphasises the inherent morality of actions and intentions, regardless of consequences. Duty and moral rules play a crucial role in decision-making. Religion, culture, and organised social movements usually employ this ethic because they are concerned with the morality of a course of action prior to taking it. These are the people who operate on conscience and if they are consistent in their beliefs and principles, they can provide a solid moral high ground – whether or not we believe as they do.

On the other hand, consequential ethics judges the morality of an action based on its outcome or consequence. As such, the end justifies the means in this approach. This ethic is usually employed in public policy when the balancing of various interests is intricate and complex. The good for the majority leads to certain sacrifices and in some cases, collateral damage has to be accepted. Consequentialists and utilitarianists can be trusted to make the tough calls, but only after weighing up interests and mapping out best-outcome scenarios.

Pragmatic ethics considers the practicality and usefulness of a certain action when making a moral decision. The goal here is to maximise overall wellbeing or happiness. Colloquially, this could be called the “follow the science” ethic. It means that as and when empirical evidence offers more contemporary options and solutions to problems, we should adopt these innovations as they are in step with current and real situations. Academia offers a wealth of pragmatists who arguably have been instrumental in society’s evolution, progress and efficiency. This is provided that they marry theory with practice.

Finally, ubuntu ethics, which originates from African philosophy, emphasises the interconnectedness and interdependence of individuals and communities. It highlights the importance of compassion, dignity, solidarity, and harmony, among other communal values, as well as respect for all people. Much has been said about the importance of adopting this ethic, given that South Africa is an African country with a majority black African population.

This ethic is a case of the maxim “know where you come from, so that you can know where you are going” and it speaks to drawing on cultural resources and indigenous knowledge systems in order to address contemporary challenges. Dating back to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for ubuntu or botho, loyal practitioners of this ethic are always concerned about the balancing of individual and communal interests. 

In summary, consequential ethics focuses on the outcome, deontological ethics on the intention, pragmatic ethics on the practicality, and ubuntu ethics on the relationships between individuals and communities. We need all the devoted foot soldiers of these ethics to hold the government accountable to the indivisible whole.

Rather than arguing for an either-or approach in terms of ethical orientation, I am suggesting that South African citizens who subscribe to any of the ethical orientations that I have mentioned and their attendant principles, should double down. By this I mean, never before has the cumulative result of individual actions been more critical and important.

Maybe this sounds airy-fairy, but consider what would happen if we achieved critical mass in terms of rejecting what we don’t want, while insisting on what we do demand.

What if we voted in 2024, not from a place of fearing “Apartheid 2.0”, but rather from choosing representatives who offered the best chance in terms of intention, outcome, practicality, and synchronicity of individuals and communities?

Our current ruling party may have secured us the positive-freedom “driver’s licence”, so to speak; however, it seems to have failed to chart a destination that for the most part, is without obstructions and interference in the negative-freedom sense.

Let me use another example to explain what I mean. Parents, universally, usually trade war stories about how their sweet pre-adolescent children evolve into either unruly, moody, or withdrawn teenagers. What they fail to acknowledge as they complain is that custodianship is outgrown at some point and independence has to be enabled if the healthy parent-child relationship is to be maintained.

I would not call South Africa a nanny state. However, I think after a generation into democracy, citizens have possibly outgrown a liberation-movement-based government. If we are truly to actualise the Freedom Charter’s preamble that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”; then we have to exercise our will towards the destination that we desire.

I think many of us agree that a country riddled with political corruption, state incompetence, public-private collusion for individual profit-driven motives, prevalent poverty, alarming unemployment, endemic violence and crime, collapsing infrastructure, and interrupted electricity and water is not what we signed up for. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    What a beautiful, nation building article. Thank you.

  • Ian Dewar says:

    Absolutely brilliant.

  • Rona van Niekerk says:

    Inspiring and providing much needed hope and purpose

  • JDW 2023 says:

    Excellent article!! Thank you for sharing this. Some food for thought.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Lovely article, though I miss some examples for each of the ethics types in our politics and how they are actively being misused. Take words like Ubuntu or social compact for instance. The ANC loves using these words to hide or distract from their failures. You cannot really talk ethics when many in the ANC are simply unwilling (or maybe even unable) to take responsibility for their actions. And in the end, ethics without direct accountability is meaningless, and basically becomes optional. What should happen to those acting actively unethically to protect and enrich their party, family, cadres and friends? What happens when the ethical thing to do for one group is unethical for others (like the current way they want to implement the NHI)? Is it OK to ignore the ethics of a minority to implement that of the majority irrespective of unintended consequences? What about actual constraints for instance it would be great to give everyone free housing, but is it OK to take money from infrastructure development that benefits everyone to do so? Is it ethical for a tiny tax base to be expected finance everything, especially when the ANC uses these topics to gain votes, not to find a sustainable solution?

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    So beautifully articulated. Are there any political parties, or politicians, that could come close to delivering on this, never mind even aspiring to these ideals? If you were running – I’d vote for you.

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