The Erosion of Ethical Values: Cry the Beloved Country


In his celebrated piece, “The Word in the World: Then and Now, Francis J. Moloney observes that in today’s western society is marked by high mobility, a fracturing of previously sacred barriers and a seeming relativisation of all that was once regarded as permanent and sacred. Nothing better exemplifies Moloney’s observation than the complete erosion of ethical values that South Africa is poignantly experiencing. Phyllis A. Tickle reports in her important book, God-Talk in America: “when my contemporaries and I closed the doors of our mothers’ houses behind us, we locked ourselves out of five hundred years of human habits and entered into disjuncture.”

Moloney cautions us that it would be easier to wring our hands in disgust over the loss of the past and tremble with fear for the future…but the tradition we belong to – in its richest manifestations – tells us to “be good cheer, I have conquered the world” (John16:33). Though the context of the views by the two authors are expressed from the perspective of the American experience; they also resonate well with the South African political experience, especially after South Africa was ushered into the new political dispensation. Sadly, though, the values that inspired our social and political institutions have been displaced from the public sphere by an activist, out of touch with political class.

Newspapers are replete with news of public leaders or figures who have transgressed the moral and social norm of our society. The scandals being revealed by the commission on state capture, the rampant corruption by government officials and the VBS’s scandal point to the erosion of ethical values in our country. I find this quotation from a book called What Matters Now by Gary Hamel very appropriate to describe the status quo in our dear country. He describes how the erosion of good values in a country could lead to systems collapse. It reads thus: “Another contributing factor is the incremental nature of moral decay. Standards seldom tumble all at once: instead, they ratchet down gradually through a series of small, nearly innocuous compromises. That’s why the deterioration is easy to miss, or dismiss.

As with a slowly rusting bridge, no alarms sound until after the structure has collapsed. Faced with the carnage, people scratch their heads and wonder how the hell did this happen? The answer: bit by bit.” The crisis affecting the economy is a crisis of our civilization. The values that we hold dear are the very same that got us to this point. The meltdown in the economy is a harsh metaphor of the meltdown of some of our value systems. A house is on fire; we see flames coming through the windows on the second floor and we think that that is where the fire is raging. In fact it is raging elsewhere. Now it is necessary to look at this crisis as a symptom of things gone wrong in our culture.

Trust and ethical values – nebulous as they are –are the bedrock of political power in a democracy. And the major parties have been systematically eroding it, by governing contrary to what people thought they were voting for. In his 2016 book The Trust Deficit, Sam Crosby points out that voters who do not trust that governments will act in their interests will vote for non-incumbent and third party candidates. The, economist Joseph Stiglitz said something quite provocative: “We’ve been shaping our society to create people who are more selfish.” Are we in present economic morass because of selfishness? As the lyrics of a popular song states it, “there are more questions than answers”.

Hegel would have called the era that South Africa is going through as an age that is “suffering from indeterminacy” .Following Hegel, we could say that indeterminacy has gained ground, as trust in the public sphere has lost ground. This reminds me of Steven Colbert’s facetious fondness for “truthness” over truth and of Ira Glass, who said we are living in “a post-truth age…when it has never been easier to establish the facts yet facts have never seemed less important.” The state capture and the VBS are typical examples of the ‘post-truth age. Franklin D Roosevelt was correct when he posited that in politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ George Orwell is also instructive when he argues that all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. Is George Orwell vindicating Ndaweni Mahlangu who, as premier of Mpumalanga province, said that it is acceptable for politicians to lie?

In Chapter III of The Prince, Machiavelli observes that in politics as in physical health, in the beginning illness is easy to cure but hard to recognize; if untreated, it becomes, in the fullness of time, easy to recognize but hard to cure. Equally true, Vladimir Lenin once observed that “in Politics, there are decades in which nothing happens and then there are weeks in which something happens”. Nothing better captures Machiavelli and Lenin’s observations more forcefully than the erosion of ethical values from our leaders and government officials.

At the core of these ethical lapses is the contest for power and resources. The departed giants of struggle for freedom would decry the present era where the moral compass that characterised our liberation struggle has lost its bearings –where an avowed distaste for individual possession of wealth has been replaced by a vision of our existence as a merciless contest in conspicuous consumption. An era best known as the era of the politics of the stomach or to use Michela Wrong’s words, the “our turn to Eat era”. An era where some people pursue narrow and parochial concerns at the expense of the greater South African humanity. Indeed, life is a long journey between being a human being and being human.

In his celebrated book On War, Carl von Clausewitz posits that “politics” is a contest of power over control of governance and resources and not necessarily “governance” itself. Politics tends to be about who controls power and not about how the political system operates successfully. The control of resources and lack of ethical virtues are the results of the present ailing economy in our country. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his piece, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, is of the view that, “politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”

Unfortunately, the consciences of some of our leaders have been found wanting when it comes to money, one of, if not the root cause of the factions that have nearly destroyed the oldest liberation movement in Africa, the African National Congress and, most poignantly, resulted to the economic instability that South Africa is going through. At the centre of these factions is money. Teresa Nesbilt Cosby, in her piece, Picking the Supremes: The Impact of money, politics and influence in judicial elections, posits that “money, politics, and influence are just like water to the river – they belong to each other. Just as no man can control the forces of nature, no statute can control these forces in a purely political system.” If there is one thing that has nearly brought the country on its knees with the resultant precipitous decline of public support, it is the conspicuous immersion of our leaders and government officials in crass materialism.

Indeed, the bulk of the blame for disgrace rests with politicians, not organisations that trusted them. Politicians, posits Gwilym Lloyd George, are like monkeys. The higher they climb, the more revolting are the parts they expose. Nevertheless, putting this preponderance of blame on the perpetrators does not absolve the organisations. To all those who have unscrupulously benefitted from looting the country, they would be advised to take heed of FA Curlin who points out that “a judgement of conscience may be wrong, but it cannot be put right by setting it aside”.

The biggest mistake our politicians must not make is not to undermine, not only the intelligence of the citizenry, but the power it possesses. In the words of Dafni Leef: “This summer we woke up and refused to continue to go blindfolded toward the precipice. This summer we opened our eyes; these eye will not close again.” Our politicians would well be advised that the patience of the citizenry is fast running out. The resurgence of protest on lack of service delivery should be the cause for concern. Most depressingly, the gargantuan number of unemployed youth in our country poses a serious threat to the stability of our many areas of the world: from the Middle East to India, Australia, the US, and Europe. Young people, mostly the unemployed, took to the centres of town to protest against what seemed wrong to them, which was political in some places, and economic or social in others.

To play with Von Clausewitz’s famous quote: “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” “Protest is the continuation of politics by other means.” But also: Politics is the continuation of protests by other means. Our politicians would be well advised to remember that the volatility of politics is a symptom of the anger and frustrations many voters have with a struggling economy. Equally important, Paul Wellstone is correct when he says “politics isn’t about big money or power games; it’s about the improvement of people’s lives.” Above all, service should, and, must always remain the eloquent expression of our freedom.

Despite the ethical quagmire that South Africa finds itself in, the solution to this is not to abandon the principles that made us great as nation; the greatness that many people laid down their lives for South Africa to be free. We dare not betray their sacrifices. This current moment in our history is assuredly no less blessed than any other. Let John Henry Newman’s words continue to encourage and inspire us, “To live is to change, to be perfect is indeed to have changed often.” We need have no fear of change. To be perfect is to have changed often. We must rediscover our lost ethical values or perish. The choice is ours. . At this unique moment in time, we must work together in common purpose and to steer our country in the right direction. Our citizenry must rise to the challenge of the times and provide our leaders with ideas, innovations and insights they need to craft solutions. We need a new vision to live by.

Dr Vusi Shongwe works for the KZN Premier’s Office but writes in personal capacity.