Monday, January 28, 2013

At sea without a moral compass.

How long can we continue to tolerate blatant and destructive hypocrisy?

When it comes to our economic destiny, behaviour will always trump rules, systems and plans. Or, as Public Protector Thuli Madonsella told a TV interviewer recently, the ethical will always prevail over the legal.

The beginning of a new year is a time of reflection, a time when most are engaged in some introspection and some resolution to do things better. I started this article with the intention of identifying and conveying a message of hope and inspiration, not in denial as Felicity Duncan’s frog in hot water but to give due recognition to the overwhelming level of goodwill that still exists in the country, and our inherent economic strengths that could be drawn upon to counter inherent and structural weaknesses.

But I was inescapably drawn to one of the first articles I wrote for MONEYWEB, on the importance of behaviour. It left me with a distinct sense of despair. For nothing we do will bear fruit without a strong underpinning of sound human values. We can take all our plans and intentions, our New Growth Path, the National Development Plan now being so loudly championed by President Zuma himself, fiscal and monetary prudence, the laudable efforts of the Public Protector, and even the Constitution itself, and consign it to a landfill of insignificance, if we do not adopt and follow a national moral compass, understood and subscribed to by all.

Identifying such a compass is not all that difficult. Paul Hoffman of the Institute of Accountability has done an excellent article on the subject. It need not be a set of rules or dogma preached from episcopal or hallowed podiums. Its points simply have to reflect sound human values that encompass the overall and fundamental principle of care for each other – the one principle that has made humanity the magnificent creatures that we are, or can be.

If there is one behaviour trait that betrays a lack of a moral compass more than any other both individually and nationally, it is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is much wider than outright corruption, irregular and illegal behaviour. It reflects too those things we believe we can get away with, perhaps even have sanctioned by a sufficient number of like-minded, morally corrupt or less demanding individuals. Hypocrisy is at the fine edge of a tumble into growing corruption, lawlessness and even violence. It is a subtle trait. Most of us at fairly regular intervals will practice it – from the cordial greeting to someone we intensely dislike to some dubious claims in advertising. It’s when it becomes unashamedly overt in a large cross section of our institutions, leaders and recognised role models, that we have to seriously challenge its facile tolerance.

2012 could certainly go down as the year of rampant hypocrisy.

There have been many comments on the watershed events at Marikana and no doubt the Commission of Inquiry will add many more. For me it underscored the importance of a force that we regularly overlook, but that undoubtedly is a powerful catalyst in all of the frustrations, anger, and unrest that South Africa has experienced in the past decade or so.

Statistics show that we experience some or other public protest every second day. And judging from the latest unrest at Sasolburg and earlier at De Doorns they are following the Marikana precedent in becoming increasingly violent, chaotic and even criminal. That force is formed when hypocrisy and political expediency meet, when promises are made to an electorate that simply cannot be fulfilled.

When those elected to power fail dismally in providing even the basics, let alone the lofty commitments that got them into power they have created an uncontrollable, ever present fuse that will instantly ignite civil disturbance. It’s been shown time and again that an ever increasing gap between expectations and experienced reality creates social ferment.

In researching this article, I came across so many instances of blatant hypocrisy that it would require a fair sized book to cover them all and analyse the harm they have done. I’m going to restrict those examples to only a few.

One is the incongruity of a state president lamenting poverty and wealth disparity while controversy rages around him about his R250m private residence. The other was the ruling party’s Mangaung conference which displayed giant billboards celebrating “100 years of selfless struggle”. Yet inside there were intense debates about the “alien” tendencies of self-serving cadres in all structures of the party. It was an irony that did not escape Ryk van Niekerk, who covered the conference for MONEYWEB.

Another, closer to home and one I have followed quite closely is the hypocritical comedy in the so-called farm workers strike with its epicentre at De Doorns. Enter on that stage a host of comedians including cabinet ministers, union leaders (some with minimal or no representation) a mysterious millionaire union leader whose organisation has had as many name changes as Liz Taylor has had husbands, and mass media reporters who did little more than reinforce confusion and misinformation. In the process we have had strikes called off in areas that were not striking; pay demands by the unemployed; deals made and then trashed; and a bemused farming community that for the most part, excluding pockets like De Doorns, went about their business and produced their normal quotas. Labour correspondent, Terry Bell, has done an excellent expose of the deeper nuances at play.

A call for the adoption of a moral compass goes much deeper than moralising. We have allowed self-serving expediency and hypocrisy to grow like a cancer in our public and business lives, eating away at every fibre of our society, yet soliciting responses that seldom go further than satirical comment in the mainstream media or becoming the subject of the cartoonist pen.

As a nation we should be outraged.

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