Sunday, March 1, 2009



Feb 28, 2009

There is a growing refrain that this year’s elections will be won on the basis of personalities; more so, personalities that epitomise (political) ethics and morality.

For COPE this has meant “electing” as their presidential candidate what some people see as an inspired choice (or divine intervention?) in the person of Methodist minister Mvume Dandala.

There is a distinction between ethics and morality in the abstract or purest sense and the ethical and moral Zeitgeist of a country. At some point these two might be at the opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

For example, during the Christian Crusades (1095-1291) blood was spilt in the name of religion, even though “thou shall not kill” was still the mantra of the faithful.

Fast forward to South Africa’s constitution: the Crusaders would be branded criminals!

The pertinent questions, therefore, are the following: which way is South Africa’s moral compass tipping? Is that moral position in favour of ethics and morality as represented by the church ?

Is Dandala’s selection by COPE one that will earn more votes for his party in the 2009 elections?

Over the years South Africa has become a materialistic society, a society of entitlement and a society of disdain for the rule of law. For a substantial number of people, it is entitlement by whatever means necessary.

Entitlement started to gain currency in the ’80s when some hitherto honest black citizens started to “repossess” cars and property belonging to white folk. Then, as a black person, you needed only a Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates sticker to insure yourself against theft of your car.

As white folks resorted to tighter security measures, our soccer club stickers were rendered ineffective. The brothers had to make the money they were used to, regardless.

It did not help that our apartheid justice system was one of the most illegitimate in the world. Disdain for the rule of law became entrenched as the apartheid government was made ungovernable.

Some police officers felt morally bound to turn a blind eye to illegal repossessions and other criminal acts — some of which masqueraded as political activity.

More and more of our police got used to looking the other way while criminal acts were perpetrated. Sooner rather than later, criminals became township celebrities and role models.

We find these days women ululate when the boys “spin” their newly acquired-by-whatever-means-necessary posh cars. Criminals have become benefactors to destitute families in their neighbourhoods.

Traditional churches used to be great benefactors to the poor and the destitute. But now they appear needier than the poor, attempting to squeeze more and more from empty purses through tithes or pledges.

These churches began to lose their congregants, save for the grannies and their grandkids with their meagre social grants.

A number of parishes are now shadows of themselves: poor, squalid and downright depressing.

Upwardly mobile citizens, ironically christened in those traditional churches, are now with the charismatic flocks — some of which preach the gospel of wealth-creation and flaunting what you have.

While they would not support their traditional churches they do not think twice about paying 10% of their monthly earnings to their new churches. Somehow, the traditional clergy have lost the plot!

Under these circumstances, I venture to surmise that the moral Zeitgeist of this country tips more towards entitlement-by-whatever-means and to crime than towards the traditional churches and their teachings.

I challenge any township clergyman to walk side by side with the most notorious criminal and see who will receive more recognition and ululation.

This era is different from the days when the clergy, the teacher and the nurse were revered and recognised by the whole community.

Like the Christian Crusaders, societies do sometimes get on the wrong side of abstract morality. South Africans are no exception.

While the choice of Dandala is indeed inspired and the right one for the change in morality we all wish for, it remains the wrong one given the current moral Zeitgeist of South Africa.

In a generation’s time this choice should pay the dividends.

For that is the minimum period required to tip the moral Zeitgeist the right way.

Not in the 2009 elections unless, of course, Dandala takes a quick lesson or two from pastors in charismatic churches.

He appeared rather staid when the COPE leadership introduced him the other day, failing to savour the moment through song and dance.

Mandela and Zuma are well known for song and dance — remember the Madiba dance and now Zuma’s Umshini Wam? That might well be part of what works, dear Dandala!

Professor Thandwa Mthembu is vice-chancellor and principal, Central University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity