Universal brotherhood. World peace. Nuclear disarmament.

And to this beseech-the-fairies wish list of above, you can add the concept of moral re-armament in South Africa. All laudable but irretrievably doomed objectives.

What brought this to mind was the weekend speech by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, in which she noted that assassinated SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani would have been horrified by “the low ethics, immoral conduct, and corruption” of the political movement for which he sacrificed his life.

Hani was famously straitlaced about issues such as self-enrichment, rent-seeking, nepotism and corruption. On the most mundane level, Hani, unlike fellow SACP stalwart Blade Nzimande, would never have rushed out to buy the biggest, brashest BMW that a ministerial posting entitled him to.

What however remains unanswerable is whether Hani’s revolutionary zeal and discipline would have weathered the gravy-train excesses that have besmirched so many of his former comrades in the African National Congress and SACP. Many quickly found irresistible the lure of easy pickings, including the one who defended a questionable black empowerment deal with the memorable explanation, “I didn’t join the struggle to remain poor”.

It is telling that when the ANC today seeks it moral centre, it is not among the living but among gravestones of fallen heroes. It has to look back 23 years to Hani, a man who died before the democratic election was even held. Or to the sadly departed Nelson Mandela, whose enormous international moral stature unfortunately never much burnished the ethics of his colleagues.

These are times of great turbulence in our politics. The Constitutional Court has bluntly assessed both the president and Parliament as having failed to uphold, defend and protect the Constitution, as demanded by their oath of office. An array of senior ANC politicians have accused the president’s cronies and benefactors, the Gupta family, of having usurped the presidential prerogative of appointing and firing Cabinet ministers, as well as key figures in parastatal entities.

So where should South Africans look for a moral compass? One might have thought that SA’s Moral Regeneration Movement (MRM), launched with great fanfare during the closing years of Mandela’s presidency, would be an obvious place.

The goal of the MRM was to be a “centre of collective activism for moral regeneration initiatives aimed at building an ethical and morally conscious community.”

The MRM got off to an inauspicious start. It was placed under the stewardship of one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, who was soon to prove himself singularly lacking in any understanding of moral subtleties.

Zuma opened the MRM’s first conference, ironically held at Waterkloof Air Base, which the Guptas a decade later controversially were allowed to commandeer as their own private airport to fly in wedding guests without the hassle of visas and passports. He said that the MRM was founded on the principles that as a nation “[we] are highly moral beings, know the difference between right and wrong, and are appalled by the symptoms of moral decay” in SA.

The MRM would not confine itself to SA, Zuma boasted. It would spread its message “beyond our borders” through SA’s involvement in ”the regeneration of the African continent”. Thus said the man whose government last year connived in thwarting an international arrest warrant issued against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who had been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It eventually dawned on the ANC that having a man with Zuma’s limited ethical profile as patron of the MRM was to invite derision and he resigned the role. But the MRM has remained admirably loyal to Zuma.

Not once have Zuma’s actions, or those of the state, been criticised. And when last week an array of religious leaders called publicly for Zuma to resign, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, the MRM’s chair, was noticeably absent.

That is hardly surprising. The MRM is nominally a non-governmental organisation but in keeping with its origin as a creation of the Presidency, it is maintained largely with taxpayer funds.

It’s been difficult to obtain from the MRM a full set of financial statements, but in the most recent available, the 20 months to end 2014, its entire income of R2 million came from the department of arts and culture. It also ended that period with over-expenditure of R890 000, presumably to be covered by the state.

The MRM has barely half a dozen staff and is barely operational. During 2014 its most energetic efforts appeared to be directed at meeting with corporates, various government entities, and the lottery board, to beg for funding.

Although the MRM is small fry in the general scheme of state waste, it is because of its history that its existence is a bad joke – at best, comedy material for Trevor Noah and Evita Bezuidenout.

It’s time to pull the plug on the MRM. And some day soon, perhaps also on its original patron.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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