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We need a national development plan for the soul

By Russel Botman

Close on 20 years after South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy through a negotiated political settlement, our country finds itself at a crossroads again. Progress in many areas has been commendable, but in others the pace of change has been far too slow. And in some areas things have actually deteriorated.

Particularly worrying are revelations such as the recent one that hundreds of South African Police Service members have criminal records. Most of them are senior officers in management. If we cannot trust all our guardians, how safe are we?

One is similarly disillusioned when looking at the high levels of corruption in South Africa. Billions that should have been spent on social services and human development are lost due to what cannot be called anything else than theft from taxpayers.

What makes matters worse is that some public servants and elected officials are involved. They are supposed to serve selflessly, yet they act out of self-interest. They are supposed to promote the common good, yet they only seem to care for self-enrichment.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that those who pay and take bribes, those who break the law and violate the Constitution, should know better. After all, many of them are members of the one or other faith community, and believers all claim to ascribe to some moral code.

So, the time has come for serious introspection, visionary reorientation and decisive action to get South Africa heading in the right direction again. A good place to start is to look at the country’s spiritual and moral foundation. For many people, this is the bedrock on which our society is built, yet it is fast being eroded.

Morality, simply put, is the pursuit of the good and avoiding the bad. Norms and values are essential concepts in this regard. They form the foundation of our most important beliefs, and influence our behaviour directly.

Where does spirituality, specifically religion, fit in? The majority of the population say they are religious, and religion has been very influential in South Africa. This is clear when one looks at the decades leading up to the country’s transition to democracy in 1994. The faith community provided leadership during the struggle against apartheid, but also in human development — relating to poverty, health and education, and also the peace movement.

Yet these days, the faith community seems to have grown silent. Why did this happen? Perhaps with the defeat of apartheid, a common goal around which everyone could unite became less obvious, and so most churches and mosques and temples started focusing on their own activities.

Attempts by the government to engage the faith community started under former president Nelson Mandela. He had called for an “RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) of the soul” in South Africa.

Next came the Moral Regeneration Movement (MRM), which former president Thabo Mbeki assigned to his then deputy, Jacob Zuma, who has since assumed the highest office in the land. The MRM was supposed to focus on the moral fibre of society. However, its credibility has been undermined, and it seems to have faded away.

What other avenues are open to us now? It is worthwhile to look at South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP), published last year. The NDP was drawn up by the National Development Commission appointed by President Zuma in 2009, with Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm.

The NDP calls for “an active citizenry that is empowered to hold public officials accountable” in order to overcome the twin challenges of corruption and lack of accountability in society. It also envisages a South Africa “in which leaders hold themselves to high ethical standards and act with integrity”. The NDP says “political leaders must remain conscious of the impact of their behaviour on the honour and integrity of the political office they hold”.

The NDP enjoys broad, though not universal, support. We should not be surprised. The NDP is a radical document — in the ethics that it espouses and the moral basis that it provides.

If we support the NDP’s vision of the future, what can we do to help make it a reality? This is a task for the religious and non-religious alike, for morality belongs to all of humankind.

We need to conduct the “national conversation about the qualities of leadership that are required in all areas of public life” that the NDP calls for.

We have to rethink the way in which the faith community exerts its influence in South Africa. All religion can be seen as a response to the burning issues of society. As such, the faith community cannot avoid its responsibility to tackle societal challenges head-on.

This will be good for the nation as a whole, because the NDP cannot succeed without strengthening the spiritual and moral foundation of society.

I think it is now opportune to amend Madiba’s call for an “RDP of the soul” to an “NDP of the soul”. This time, though, civil society should unite to repair the moral fibre of society. It is a cause no less noble or urgent than the struggle against apartheid. About this there should be no disagreement.

Professor Russel Botman is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, and the recipient of the Princeton Theological Seminary’s 2013 Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Theology and Public Life. Reach him on Twitter: @RusselBotman.

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    • Heinrich

      We can gain knowledge by connecting to the internet , but we require certain hardware and software to do this.
      Of course we need to accumulate knowledge, but it is imperative we gain wisdom
      We can do this by connecting to the network which can provide this.

      We need no special hardware for this, it is totally free and the only software required is love 2.1 and compassion 8.

      On second thoughts, I do believe we need some RAM. At least 2 Terra bits of Random Acts of Mercy.

      Just like to be forgiven frees the forgiver, living a grand life impoverishes the leader.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Professor Botman, there isn’t one person elected to office in SA and held accountable to the people. Until this issue of direct election is addressed there can be no progress on the war on corruption.

    • PrettyBelinda

      Long time coming…..we have to find our collective soul again.

    • J.J.

      “…for morality belongs to all of humankind.”

      Yet we have spurned morality and now we find ourselves in a crisis – this will force us to look at the value of morality and the need for morality.

      Thank you for this timely message professor. We are in a deep crisis of morality and this is a debate that must be had.

    • manquat

      I couldn’t agree more. Lots of the problems we face are deeply engrained within the psyche of all Sout Africans. That’s why the TRC did a pretty good job when our country made the transition in 1994. However, we still got a lot of healing to do.

      What the hell is wrong in a country that rapes and murders toddlers?

    • maggielou

      This is an excellent post and I could not agree more.

    • V. Ranchhod

      Dear Prof. Botman,

      I agree with everything that you’ve said, and I’m glad that you mentioned that morality is something that is not solely in the domain of religious people.

      In my view, there is something that cannot be ignored in the South African context, which is the legacy apartheid. Apartheid was unethical and immoral, and resulted in mass psychological scarring and economic inequalities. These have long term effects. Add in the limited amounts of redistribution, maintenance of property rights and power structures, and the socio-economic landscape did not change much for most South Africans.

      As a result of this segregation, both physical and economic, I think that there is no singular South African community or identity. This fragmentation of society constrains what we can achieve.

      The problem of corrupt officials and police with criminal records are indeed problems, but they are like fixing the roof and gutters on a house when the entire foundation needs replacing. I don’t think that you can have an enlightened society spiritually while having such an unjust society physically and economically.

      We need to see ALL people as people first, and understand that we share a common destiny. Perhaps this is the first level of spiritual evolution; empathy and compassion. We then need to learn to treat all people with dignity and respect, and build a society that reflects this, and nurtures a sense of optimism and agency for everyone.

      How do we get…

    • Tofolux

      @Prof, who-ever said that this road to transformation was going to be easy? As Dennis Glodberg says, ‘we never promised you a rose-garden’. And what do we say/show Dennies and his comrades who fought so hard, so unselfishly and were so committed in bringing us liberation and freedom? Do we repay them with the selfsih and spoilt-brattish pointing of fingers? Do we constantly ask of them to give up their lives only because we are so lazy to get off our bee-hinds and do things for our-selves? Society must take responsibility and they must lead on civil issues. We MUST not grow thin skins eg boer comments. We MUST confront OURSELVES and our own prejudices first. How can anyone on society claim that we must have an rdp of our souls when they are still sitting on the same fences and throwing the same stones. And how can you even begin to ask that which you have not subjected yourself to? We must stop pretending that we are not hiding behind self-inflicted barriers and we must stop being dishonest with ourselves and society. What we demand of others, we must demand of ourselves. We cannot be told by someone with no credible evidence of transformation to transform. I suggest that a particular section of society must do their introspection because I will say that the youth on the ground has grown frustrated with their inane selfishness. In fact, they will experience a rude awakening of our frustration with them. Hence direct your call to that section of society first.

    • J.J.

      Tofolux, I’m just wondering if the frustration of the youth on the ground doesn’t also stem from a lack of access to higher education in order to empower themselves economically. They current youth were not born into Apartheid, or at least, now in their twenties, they should be at the point of having equal opportunities to education, i.e. enough institutions of higher education and access to higher education (maybe on the African model) should be available. One of the most perplexing things about the new South Africa is that this issue has been sufficiently addressed and it is very difficult to understand why it is not prioritised. Investing in human capital should be any nations absolute priority and considering the particular history of African having been disadvantaged in this respect, it’s unfathomable that we basically still have only the universities which we used to have under Apartheid. Any thoughts? Who should take responsibility here? Maybe the previously advantaged should help to rectify this, but how? And who would take the initiative. Ultimately though, are we not talking about something which can only really be addressed on government level?

    • Joe Malapela

      Like most South Africans I also condemn the levels of criminality and corruption in our country. All South Africans must stand together and fight against theIse evils. But I am totally against the view that compared to the apartheid era, ‘some things have actually deteriorated’. I am not convinced! I am also weary of the habit of always focusing on government leaders and officials when referring to criminal acts and corruption.

      In my view, ordinary South Africans and the private sector must also take blame where some acts of crime and corruption occur. For example, take the issue of traffic offences where some drivers regularly report to the media that they were stopped by traffic officers and asked for bribes. I stay in Soweto and get stopped regularly by traffic officers but I have never been asked for a bribe. I have been driving since 1968. My point is that ‘it takes two to tango” and these officials that we blame regularly do not oprate in isolation. Lets stop this blame culture!!

    • Tofolux

      @JJ. the problem is that we are registering and studying at fets and universities in numbers unparralled in our history. And yes, there are new fets being built. We have identified skills need and institutions are responding to fill the gap. The biggest stumble-block however is the employment practises of the private sector. eg look at the incident at investec of a young black male when he wrote to Pres Mbeki at the time. Our experiences are that certain jobs are reserved for whites, positions are created for them when they graduate, promotion procedures are flouted for them and the salaries and perks they receive is diabolical compared to a non-white person with the same qualifications. CEO’s in this country earn unthinkable amounts and this whilst only certain groups are retrenched. We see no job creation or upskilling of africans in particular. To my mind, certain businesses are operating against the constitution. So if this is our xperienc why is this not reflected and interogated by civil society or media? Why the deafening silence on this matter? My problem is that we reside in a society where a particular section chooses amnesia and dishonesty. Not only this, they whinge about non-sensical issues and this whilst we are still borne into poverty under the same conditions of unemployment and hunger. Corporate SA must take the full shoulder of blame becos it is they who keeps us poor and hungry. And no there are no “born-frees”. I mean born free of what?

    • Yaj

      Pope Francis is doing a good job of leading by example. We need local faith leaders to follow suit.
      However, the root cause of society’s moral decay (without absolving anybody of personal responsibilty for their own individual actions) : is an iniquitous banking/ monetary system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest which systematically concentrates wealth in the hands of a small elite and creates poverty, rising inequality,competition and greed for scarce money.
      It is a system that is also fundamentally contrarian to any sense of environmental sustainability because it relies o perpetual growth like a Ponzi pyramid scheme.
      So our first task is to understand the destructive mechanics of this system through self-education and then work to implement alternative benevolent monetary systems such as public banking options, 100% reserve banking, social credit, local interest-free currencies etc.
      some useful websites are ,

    • Born Whingers

      The majority of South African’s are born whingers. We suffer from a serious case of the “gimmees.” It’s give me this, give me that, give give give. Nothing is offered in return, not even those things over which we do have control – like self- discipline, responsibility, mutual respect, manners, caring, integrity, non violence to name but a few. We blame everything on scars from the past or an unequal present, and refuse to accept accountability or responsibility for a that for which we are ultimatley reponsibile – our future. We are unable to delay any kind of gratification and we lash out any anyone who dares to criticise us when we throw our tantrums. We wallow in self pity. Throughout the ages people have risen up from far worse and sustained atrocities than apartheid to become stable and productive citizens, no matter which side of the equaltion they were located. Not South Africa – we prefer ro wallow. V. Ranchod is correct. We have nothing around which we can cohere, no national pride. Instead we all selfishly claim our own little space as being sacrosanct. We all need to stop being so self-indulgent, grow up and start putting the interests of our country before our own. But changing would require some hard work and we are too damn lazy for that. We are a bunch of ninnies. Now – i’m just waiting for the inevitable backlash :0)……

    • J.J.

      Best comment (!) – you said it all, Born Whingers #.

      Spot-on. It is so. So it is.

    • Rory Short

      We certainly need such a plan but a plan is not enough in itself, it also requires implementation at the level of the individual and this is where we as a country are failing. The evil of Apartheid was so large that many worked to rid us of it. Not all who did so however really understood the depths of the evil that they were opposing and their opposition was fueled more by the impact Apartheid was having on them personally than on their perception of Apartheid’s very real violation of general moral and ethical principles. Consequently, once the struggle was over, in their personal lives they easily and unashamedly used the freedom gained to benefit themselves in corrupt ways at the very real expense of the rest of us. But we should not see such people as our role models we don’t have to when our history is replete with many role models who are more than worthy of that appellation.