Shared Moral Vision Key to Combatting Corruption

democracy politics corruption services
Wednesday, 12 October, 2011 - 10:44

South Africa should do more to uproot corruption which continues to tarnish the image of our young democracy and rob the poor of basic services

“Crisis? What crisis? There is no crisis in Zimbabwe.” Of the many colourful quotes attributed to former President Thabo Mbeki, this remains one of the most memorable; together perhaps with the famous mock homily on ‘fishers of corrupt men’ - a reference to those who dared suggest that the country’s mega arms procurement process in 2000 was rife with irregularities.

One wonders what exotic retort he would have nowadays given to the suggestion that South Africa is facing a moral crisis and that corruption is at the heart of it. Speculations aside, the extent of corruption in the country’s public and private sectors has been decried since Mandela’s presidency. Being among the issues that have featured prominently in South Africa’s moral regeneration initiative for more than a decade, one would have expected corruption to have by now generated widespread moral outrage. It should have rallied mass mobilisation reminiscent of the days of the liberation movement when a large majority of people could be united against a common enemy.

Corruption is often denounced as the enemy of the common good but common activism against it is not proving so common. Instead, a worrying bifurcation, almost akin to Mbeki’s famous ‘two nations’ diagnosis, is emerging.

On the one side is a majority of voters, mostly poor and semi-literate, that has continued, unfailingly, to entrust the African National Congress ​with public power at every election opportunity. On the other side is a motley crew of mostly well-educated, articulate and well-resourced minorities that also has, at times, legitimate claims to the liberation cause, but now indignant at the perceived moral degeneration that has befallen the liberation movement.

This is a stratum that seems hell-bent on promoting a society that teems with whistleblowers and crime busters fighting the symptoms of a moral decay, as opposed to the actual structural root causes.  These two sides do not seem to be anywhere close to putting shared long-term interests above short-term gains, for the sake of creating a society where such moral crisis does not exist in the first place. This does not augur well for the country’s collective future well-being.

What is to be done to generate widely-shared moral repugnance against corruption? This is the million-dollar question that still bedevils policy-makers across the board. Fortunes in public funds have been spent experimenting with structures, programmes and processes that could deliver the holy grail of moral renewal. These structures and programmes have been at times built at the expense of obscuring the very content they were meant to promote. All this has arguably stemmed from the absence of a few vital ingredients necessary for moral regeneration to occur, including serious intolerance against corruption.

First is the need to craft a shared vision of the desired collective and individual behavioural change. The Moral Regeneration Movement (MRM), an initiative launched nearly a decade ago to restore the moral fibre of the South African society, has made some important headway in this regard. With important inputs from the bottom and top stratums of society, the movement has been able to compile and publish a Moral Charter for South Africa. This aspires to be a framework that establishes a broad consensus on the kind of values the nation should uphold, as well as a standard against which the moral character of citizens will be measured.

Unfortunately, the movement’s most powerful erstwhile patron, President Jacob Zuma, has not quite managed to stand in the public mind as an ideal example of moral rectitude. The extent to which this has compromised the movement’s momentum remains a lingering question. And it remains to be seen whether his acquittal on rape charges, and his unexpected decision to appoint a commission of inquiry into his old ‘arms deal’ nemesis, would eventually clear him of this moral blemish.

Second is commitment to dealing with the challenge of clarifying the role of civil society, especially at the grassroots level, in the country’s quest for moral regeneration. This is the sector that should drive the process of reaching a common agreement on shared moral values for our young democracy. Poor clarification of roles has at times meant that the people and communities vital to the success of the MRM are not optimally positioned to support it fully.

Finally, the discourse of spirituality and religion, which has characterised much of the moral regeneration agenda in the past, may need to be kept in check, as this may alienate many of those who may feel uncomfortable with the association of morality with religion, including the belief that one has to be religious to be moral and has to believe in God to be good. Morality has governed societies long before the arrival of religion, which means that moral goodness can be found in people who have no religion.

The recent shift in focus towards emphasising the Constitution, the Constitutive Act of the African Union, and the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, as sources of positive public moral values, should go a long way in easing this discomfort.

That shared moral values are the bedrock of any decent society, where selfishness and greed give way to the promotion of the common good, cannot be gainsaid. Our dark past has done little to foster a sense of national pride, but it did become a rallying point for many to fight for the common good. Corruption, no doubt a mirror of our past, is a threat to this hard-won gain.

While it is important to understand the roots of the malaise, the past should not be used as an excuse to turn a blind eye to it. Defeating corruption will take a unified moral stance where the haves and have-nots sincerely commit to bridge the class, race and political divide to speak with one common voice.

-  Andile Sokomani, Senior Researcher, Corruption and Governance Programme ISS Cape Town Office. This article was first published on the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) website. It is republished here with the permission of ISS.

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