Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ethics, Not Economics, Will Fix Our Broken Society

In a country of war-like levels of violent crime; the constant abuse, rape and murder of children; and staggeringly brazen levels of corruption; South Africa’s loudest political protests have largely been framed as responses to mere service delivery inefficiencies.

In the face of gross moral breakdown, our public conversation has confined itself to a critique of the mere workings of government.

In his State of the Nation parliamentary address last Thursday evening, President Jacob Zuma failed to transcend this technocratic fixation – the solutions proposed did not broker anything beyond the increased lubrication of government machinery.

Whilst service delivery is a legitimate crisis requiring indignant and urgent action, one could arguably assert that the glaring absence of a deeper kind of protest to our society’s grotesque habits is of an even more alarming nature than municipal ineptitude and callousness.

Rather than confronting the darkness of our country directly, we have instead neglected the issues in a blaze of government-speak and rhetoric. Instead of turning to the difficult yet simple light of human morality, we have relied on technical intervention alone to solve deeply spiritual problems.

Even in the language of the official opposition to the ruling party, the terms of debate have largely remained that of inefficiency and delivery. The problem with this approach is that it never answers the question that is truly at the heart of our politics: what has gone so horribly wrong in our land?

A cursory glance at the public square reveals a plenitude of jargon based on the complexities of economic growth and development planning. Spending on education and health is lauded as the panacea for our woes, but a careful analysis of the problems in our nation’s health and education sectors quickly demonstrates that our crises are not of a mere technical nature that can just be solved by the greater professionalism of elected bureaucrats.

This discord between our problems and purported solutions is perfectly demonstrated by the fact that despite our consistently good economic performance, the viciousness of South African crime has shown no significant signs of abating. The crime levels are still comparable to war zones all around the world, whilst government’s condom distribution has not altered the landscape of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Both issues are brought together in South Africa’s vilest moniker – ‘The Rape Capital of the World’.

And all the while, our politicians dare not take the risks of exploring the full implications of their duties as representatives of their beleaguered citizens. Like the foes of Socrates, they focus instead upon the style of politics, rather than its substance. And the citizenry is largely silent.

Months before his assassination, US Senator Robert Kennedy poignantly noted the ironies of a simplistic correlation between technical, economic efficiency and national well-being:
Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials... it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
What Kennedy understood was that politics needs to have a deeper point of reference than mere management of state machinery or blank economic growth – it should require a kind of moral and philosophical imagination that asserts core ideals concerning the human person.

If we cannot understand what constitutes the good for the human person, if human beings are not more to us than economic units, all we are left with is a decrepit welfare state in which all of our problems are collapsed into economics and service delivery. The result is dehumanization – citizens become mere clients of the mercantile state.

Such a process is exhibited in the political approach to crime and AIDS. It is assumed that unemployment and lack of education are the intertwined causes for both problems. If we get the economics right and the matric pass rates up, it is believed that a whole culture of violence and casual sex will dissipate and that South African families will suddenly emerge as whole, healthy and prosperous.

The order of that intervention needs to be reversed. Studies have shown that children raised by married parents are exponentially more likely to succeed economically – for it is the family and other societal bonds that produce high levels of education and productivity, not vice versa. Our current model of problem-solving hopes that economics will simply save our families, rather than renewed families saving our economics.

Spending on education is undoubtedly a good thing, yet such spending will not do its work until we begin with the harder and all-encompassing work of being good parents and neighbours.

Again, the latest research in HIV transmission has demonstrated that the unique problem in Southern Africa is the high prevalence of concurrent and multiple partners amongst the sexually active. It is hoped that by handing out medical goods such people will suddenly learn the supposed responsibility required to dent the transmission rates – a moral problem apparently has a scientific solution.

But when a person has multiple partners, and sex has become a mere game that sometimes produces children by accident (who can simply be aborted by the ‘womb cleansers’ illegally advertised on every lamp post), is such a solution really viable?

Until greater attention is paid to the collapse of sexual ethics in our nation, no technical ‘solution’ will gain real traction.

These issues all constitute the black hole of our national culture. We have simply refused to view our problems through a moral lens, despite our morality being the most human thing about us. We rightly concern ourselves with material conditions, but we fail to see that material conditions are not the sum total of our society.

South Africa has simply adopted the prevailing global ideology that the most basic thing about humans is their economics, and not their morality, their relationships and their families. It is the myth of pliable, liberal man – that family, sexuality and morality are subjective appendages rather than essentials.

What is required is a governmental approach and a public conversation that goes beyond questions of only economic intervention and lack of service delivery and turns instead to the ideal questions of relations between state, family, land, and the ethics of the human person. It is the interplay of these notions that carries our fate.

The great example of this is the historical destruction of the black peasantry. This annulment of the African family farm led to the cash culture of the slums, and tore the social fabric in such a way that we need to go beyond mere industrial intervention if we are to weave it back together again.

In short, our politicians and citizens must become philosophers again - grappling with the essential nature of goodness and justice – before we are able to lay a truly civic platform which can begin to restore to our country a human face.

Until this happens, we will continue to fail to solve our moral and human problems.

By Chris Waldburger. Originally published in the Cape Argus on Thursday 27 February.

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