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Moral degeneration

20 June 2008

In a piece tagged “doom and gloom” The Shrieking Man writes about what one can only call the moral degeneration in South African society, which he attributes to a lack of shared values. And if this continues, he says, the future is bleak

what is coming is an atomised capitalist anti-community where divisions grow rather than shrinking. The love of emigration among the rich is paralleled by the violence against foreigners among the poor; both are signs of a general refusal to accept that we live in a society where such behaviour is not helpful. Corporate and bureaucratic corruption among the rich and powerful matches the crime wave among the poor and downtrodden. It is a low-intensity war of all against all. Kurt Vonnegut oversimplified when he said “The winners are at war with the losers”, for he forgot that the winners are also at war with the winners, and the losers with the losers. We cannot actually afford to live in a society like this, and yet this is what we are having built around us.

That’s a bleak picture, and The Shrieking Man says, “Because the “rainbow nation”/”ubuntu” propaganda construct which the media engendered has been shown to be a lie, the media declares that this proves that every positive aspect of South African life is a lie.” And that is where I beg to differ.

Ubuntu and the “rainbow nation” were not engendered by the media, though they may, at times, have been hyped and propagated by the media. If I remember correctly, the “rainbow nation” idea was first propounded by the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, to show a different way of looking at things after apartheid. Different colours do not have to be segregated in “homelands” and forcibly separated from each other. They can live side-by-side and create something beautiful, like a rainbow, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ubuntu is shorthand for a set of people-centred values and behaviour that is a kind of aspiration that is seen more in rhetoric than in reality. It is a contrast to the selfish individualism that seems to have taken hold of many of the leaders of our society, like “moral regeneration”, which is something that many talk about but few actually want if it is to apply to them. Ubuntu is not quite dead yet; in fact we do see examples of it from time to time. We see it in the actions of those who moved to shelter and care for the victims of recent xenophobic violence, for example, and there have been quite a lot of them. So ubuntu is not quite dead. It’s just that those who practise it don’t talk about it much, and those who talk about it don’t practise it much.

The Shrieking Man advocates socialism and socialist values. But those are two different things. Socialism, in the broadest sense, is an economic system based on the principle that cooperation is better than competition. But you can’t make such an economic system in a vacuum, without the underlying values that support it. And for the last 25 years or more people have been indoctrinated with neoliberal capitalist values, which are in direct conflict with socialist values and ubuntu. If you’re a doctrinaire Marxist, of course, you won’t believe that — first create the economic infrastucture and the superstructure of values and ideals will follow. But I don’t think it works like that. The values and the infrastructure go together.

Over the last 25 years South Africa, like other countries, has been afflicted with privatisation mania. But privatisation didn’t just happen; it was carried out by people with a neoliberal value system who put it into practice. Why was the demutualisation of building societies and insurance groups carried out with so little fuss or opposition? The only suprising thing is that the Old Mutual still calls itself that when it is nothing of the kind — a better name would be the New Commercial. Why don’t we see protests against toll roads and privatised prisons? Because most people have bought into the neoliberal capitalist value system.

In a pluralistic society like South Africa, if there is to be moral regeneration, it cannot be a top-down process. Ubuntu cannot be imposed by government decree, as Sukarno tried to impose Pancasila in Indonesia, though it would be nice if our leading citizens at all levels of government did live by the principles of ubuntu. Moral regeneration needs to be bottom-up as well, and that means that it needs to be taking place in civil society, in churches and other religious groups. Of course there are many differences between religious and other civil society groups, but that is precisely the reason that a “one size fits all” system like pancasila cannot be imposed from the top.

So I narrow my horizons, and say what is needed to bring about moral regeneration in my neck of the woods? And my neck of the woods is the Orthodox Church. Moral regeneration needs to begin with the clergy, or, more specifically, with the priests who hear confession, because that is where, in the Orthodox Church, the most immediate moral guidance takes place. And to achieve that the clergy who hear confessions need to be able to themselves confess to a wise and Spirit-filled spiritual elder, of the kind usually to be found in monasteries on the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). So the most important step we can take to contribute to moral regeneration in the country is to have some well-established monasteries. What we need is not more good men, but more holy men.

I realise that this will not be of much help to Muslims or Methodists or Agnostics or Atheists. But South Africa is a pluralistic society, and the “one size fits all” mentality won’t work. But if the Orthodox managed to achieve this, it would help Orthodox Christians in South Africa to acquire the Christian virtues of modesty, humility, patience and love, and people who acquire those virtues will practise ubuntu even if they don’t know they are doing so.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 March 2011 1:58 pm



  1. Unburdening the Captors | Khanya

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