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.