Barney Pityana: We are a filthy, selfish and greedy society

2019-03-26 23:10

We have become an aggressively filthy, selfish and greedy society that cares only for itself and its own, writes Barney Pityana

As I grow older, and as our constitutional democracy progresses in fits and starts, I find myself becoming sceptical about the prospects of law transforming the nature and character of our society for the better or at least realising the ideals set out in the Constitution.

I am old enough to know the struggle that was waged against apartheid was predicated on the belief that our destiny as South Africans was a societal ethos radically opposed to and qualitatively different from that which British colonialism and apartheid had made of humanity in our country.

I also realise that not everything in traditional indigenous African society was ideal, but I recognise that, like all societies, it was bound to develop into something the advancement of which we could take responsibility for.

The struggle against apartheid was a moral project.

As a young activist I reasoned that we deserved to become more wholly human: To live in equality, to promote development and sustainability, to create a just relationship with all humanity and with the world around us.

Where I am today I have the sense that for many of our leaders the purpose of living is more about ascendancy and material acquisitions for their own sake; and the inequality and suffering of many does not seem to disturb the conscience.

Instead we have become an aggressively filthy, selfish, individualistic and greedy society that cares only for itself and its own.

A moral and humane society?

As with many, I have watched this nation go through the convulsions of moral outrage about the violations of those values that we had understood our new democratic ideals defined: Honesty, we leave nobody behind, we lift others as we rise – in other words a moral and humane society.

More alarmingly, we produced leaders who were outrageously immoral; who had no belief in the moral system we sought to establish and were not interested in democracy or subjecting themselves to democratic and constitutional accountability; who manipulated and violated all systems of law to suit their own ends; who raided the public purse, not to make the life and being of the state better, but to amass wealth for themselves and their own; and who engaged power for the sole purpose of protecting themselves from public scrutiny.

We have been on the precipice towards an autocratic, feudal society.

We knew that women were being raped; that children were being abused; that far too many of us were becoming visibly rich without accounting for the source of our wealth; that our streets were no longer safe; and that our own homes had become not our castles but more like our prisons, often invaded by criminals and all forms of inhumanity.

We knew that public resources were being stolen, used not so much to make sure that our children went to school and schools were a safe learning environment; or to attend the sick and poor and vulnerable; or to give decent housing to the poor; or to ensure the young were loved and allowed to grow; and the elderly to be loved and cared for.

Society had organised itself into power cliques and political elites. We were not innocent bystanders, but far too many of us were complicit by our silence and by aiding such wanton criminality.

As one trained in the heyday of confidence in law even under the conditions of apartheid, we held that law could become the means by which we transformed society and liberated the oppressed from the clutches of apartheid.

I have now come to the realisation that law, all law, is more about how it projects the interests of those in power, how it is unable to help society to realise its own ideals. Somehow, law is incapable of transformation of itself and of society at large.

The principles of constitutionality and law soon become sedated and the people become subjects who conform and comply.

I am troubled that our society has not been able to eliminate racism and tribalism – and that race essentialism and ethnic chauvinism are very much part of our South African discourse.

I am troubled that leaders in society still speak about race as if they were reading straight from the script of Hendrik Verwoerd.

The non-debate about land is a case in point. In 25 years of democracy far too many of our people go to bed hungry at night and some die in the streets. Our criminal justice system does not appear to have dealt a decisive blow to injustice.

At higher-education institutions we seem to be producing educated thugs rather than reasoning and argumentative intellectuals imbued with a culture of decency.

Our schools are earning a reputation as blackboard jungles, where teachers and pupils are literally at each other’s throats and our children die of violence at the hands of their fellow pupils.

Watching the shenanigans that reveal themselves on our TV screens in the Zondo commission, the Public Investment Corporation inquiry, the VBS Bank scandal and the escalating troubles at Eskom, I ask myself where these people come from.

It is like a horror movie, but it is the story of our lives.

This means that the realisation of freedom as freeness does not depend on institutions or traditions because, by their nature, such institutions and traditions are not the instruments or roots of freedom in any case.

It has to do with the reasoned mind of resistance and challenge to the normative instruments of establishment.

Words, words and more words

In a very real sense we have lost the passion for freedom that once propelled so many of us in our young lives to give up everything.

If law is to have any meaning at all, I suggest, it will then have to be the means by which South Africans are reminded of the need constantly to refresh our ideals and to realise them in our ordinary daily lives.

I want to suggest also that in 25 years we have lost the idealism, the power of seeking and believing only in the best that is possible, and to make possible that which is obscure and suppressed.

Democracy has lost its transformative meaning and law is no longer a tool for the realisation of democracy’s highest aspirations.

I read the manifestos of the political parties and I think it is a case of words, words and more words … and promises and more promises … I despair because I also think that none of them, not even the majority party that ought to know better, are taking us into their confidence about the true state of this nation.

They are not rallying this nation into unity about a common purpose and a shared future. They are not reminding us of our highest ideals and the most sacred responsibility we have held so dear and that has brought us to freedom.

We produced leaders who were outrageously immoral

Somehow, we are sold the illusion that more of the same will save us. I do not believe it.

If we are not careful, history is capable of repeating itself.

We are no longer capable of talking and reflecting intelligently about the national question and about social cohesion.

We have become even more of a divided, racially stratified, tribalised and ethnically chauvinistic society than we ever were under apartheid.

Apartheid, as Steve Biko used to say, was not only a leveller but it was also a unifier towards a common patriotism.

We have no policies in place, of which I am aware, that critically and aggressively promote intelligently and meaningfully social cohesion and a common nationhood.

We bemoan the past, but we fail to live our vision for the future. But we elect the least capable of us to become president and head of state.

Our representatives in Parliament as legislators are at best compromised and incompetent; and the ignorant run our state enterprises. And then – we cry foul.

Strive for integrity

We must reclaim our freedom. Somehow, we need to believe that 1994 marked a state of freedom for all in our country (and not for some). We must not look back like the wife of Lot.

We must shape and give meaning to our freedom because nobody else will.

We must understand clearly that our freedom is our collective responsibility. Second we must recover and articulate the vision.

We have lost the vision and we are no longer propelled by the idealism that captures the imagination.

That vision, I believe, is stated in the constitution. 

South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; and non-racialism and non sexism.

We need courage and boldness about addressing and eliminating all forms of inequality. We need law and democracy that works for the people.

There are far too many people in our country who believe that politics is a dirty game, that law cannot be trusted and that church is where evil reigns supreme.

The result is effective anarchy.

We must take steps to help society to assert its humanity and strive for the integrity of the human person.

For that to happen in a liberating manner we must be reminded of our civic responsibility. That must change if we are to have any future.

This is an edited version of a speech given during the recent National Association of Democratic Lawyers’ annual conference hosted by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation


What can we do as a nation to assert our humanity and strive for the integrity of the human person?

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February 23 2020