As Anton Muziwakhe Lembede put it, “Decay and decline of morals brings about the decay and decline of society – so History teaches”

The haunting poignancy of the words of Lembede lie not only in their ability to evoke the temptation to compare the past with the present, but also in their assertion that it is history that teaches us that: “Decay and decline of morals brings about the decay and decline of society.”

A brief history lesson will enrich us with the necessary perspective to understand the present era of moral decay.

Imbi Lendawo!

It was in 1652 through the arrival of the Dutch East Indian company that Europeans began quenching their capitalist thirst with the human capital and minerals of South Africa. It is in this epoch that the deeply entrenched roots of racial conflict are located.

Capitalist expansion and primitive accumulation in the Cape of Good Hope, where they first arrived, would not suffice. When they were no longer able to trade mirrors for land and cattle, the capitalist bandits would resort to violence and armed merciless raids to loot and appropriate all that the land had to offer.

Being well aware that they had to protect their stolen goods and expropriated wealth against a great mass of African people, the bandits resorted to institutionalizing their modus operandi through legislation passed by the Union of South Africa and then later the apartheid regime which was undisguised in its racist ways.

A constant in all of this was the use of expansionist religion, particularly Christianity, and the logic of perverted science to justify unjustifiable means to an unjust end.

Morally bankrupt and no longer able to resist the unyielding advance of democratic and liberation forces, the society that was structured to benefit a few at the expense of the majority would go through a democratic revolution in 1994. This meant the death of the old and the birth of the new.

The birth of the new would signal a dramatic break from that tendency of justifying unjustifiable means to an unjust end. Or so we thought.

Given that society remains classist, racist and patriarchal in character, have we taken seriously lessons given to us by history? Have we resisted the forces of evil in all their manifestations to birth a moral and humane society?

If the term, “Imbi Lendawo”, was ever used to label society and its moral fibre pre-1994, it has remained as an accurately descriptive tag for current conditions. We are in a state of moral decay. Imbi Lendawo!

Corruption

Corruption has stunted not only our growth but our human capacity to be moral and ethical beings.

Corruption has stunted not only our growth but our human capacity to be moral and ethical beings.

In a lecture delivered in Canada in 1978 Thabo Mbeki said of the capitalist class of South Africa, “The capitalist class, to whome everything has a cash value, has never considered moral incentives as very dependable.” While these words were uttered in 1978 they make clear the type of moral compass that has been employed by the private sector in South Africa. It is a moral compass that directs individuals and big business in the opposite direction from the spiritual beacon of Ubuntu which should be our true north as far as our morals are concerned.

Gangsters in suits thriving in embezzlement, fraud, illicit flows of funds, hyper-inflated price fixing, and collusion indeed prove that to a large extent the Private Sector in South Africa does not consider “moral incentives as very dependable”.

Of more concern is the corruption that takes place in the public sector. I say this not to compare sins but rather from the understanding that it is the organs of the state that ought to protect those within its borders from the ruthlessness of the private sector. Furthermore, it is organs of the state that are entrusted with funds that belong to the people. Corruption in the public sector amounts to selling out. It is selling out the prerogative and the powers granted to public office bearers by the Constitution of the Republic in exchange for monetary gain. It is selling out those invaluable principles of servitude, integrity, honesty, and credibility. It is selling out our capacity to be moral and ethical beings!

Violence

What is the root and core of the problem if not moral decay?

The clearest indicator of moral decay has been the scourge of violence particularly against those who have been allotted to the bottom of the tiered hierarchal pyramid of oppression: black women and the LGBTQI+ community.

Gender Based Violence (GBV) continues to terrorise South African institutions and individuals, it dares to shamelessly rear its ugly head even during a time when most of us are confined to our homes – a place where one should find refuge and safety. Our homes have become the epicentre of gross human rights violations.

In this regard I must ask: Given the extensive protective and preventative measures put in place by both non-state and state actors, what is the core and root of the problem if not moral decay? Given the fact that we can no longer claim GBV as to be one of the hangover symptoms of a drunken society due to the heavy ban on the trade of alcohol, what is at the core and root of the problem if not moral decay?

Of course it would be neglecting our intellectual duty as activists to view this from such a simplified prism. To ensure that we aren’t charged for this ever so common act of neglect we must follow the root (moral decay) up to the branches that make patriarchal oppression possible. An attempt at this should not only reveal different branches of socio-economic inequalities but also cultural and religious views which have refused to evolve along with the dynamism of society.

The effects are clear for all to see not only in how the culture of violence, intolerance and discrimination disproportionately affects women of colour and the LGBTQI++ community. But also in the social, economic, political and cultural marginalization that condemns them to a life of subservience whereby they have to prove to be better than the different custodians of privilege in order to be regarded as equal and worthy members of society.

Beyond Moral Outrage

Moral outrage in itself is society communicating its anger, discontentment and judgement at acts committed by third parties towards other groups, individuals or institutions. We cannot doubt the effectiveness of moral outrage in terms of its ability to ignite action against what society deems as an injustice.   

However we must be alive to the fact as human beings our morality, or what we deem as right and wrong, can be persuaded and that makes us susceptible to employing moral double standards. The latter perspective lends an explanation to the inconsistency and lack of endurance that our moral outrage has when it comes to issues that “hit home”.  

Because of moral double standards we cannot marshal the powers of moral outrage to effect change in those very communities that we inhabit because we in ourselves start to question the legitimacy of moral outrage that is in opposition to those beliefs and values of the community that we are part of. This taps into the human tendency to protect that which gives them standing in the community, be it masculinity, accumulation /of wealth or the fictitious claim of racial superiority.

It becomes clear, then, that where there is opportunity for moral double standards there also opportunity to justify unjustifiable means to an unjust end. There is a remedy for this in the age old saying of Ubuntu; “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”. Let me explain.

The saying “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, does not recognise gender, race, class or any other difference that can be exploited by those who are intolerant of the other. The saying also makes it clear, as Linguists will tell you, that one cannot be umuntu without abantu and vice versa.Meaning our humanness and standing in the community is dependent on how we treat others regardless of gender, race, or class.

The power in the saying displaces the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest and encompasses the belief that we are part of a broader society whose survival, harmony and prosperity is dependent on cooperation and compassion. It is the world outlook of Ubuntu that aims to go beyond tolerating and towards embracing the other in an interconnected and diverse society.

Recognising moral decay as the root and core of our problems necessitates that we embark on a journey of moral regeneration with the spiritual beacon of Ubuntu guiding us in the manner that we behave in our personal capacity and the collective treatment that we extend as a community to others. Failure to do so will result in the society of this current epoch being another part of South Africa’s history which will lend itself as an example of the truism in the words of Lembede when he said, “Decay and decline of morals brings about the decay and decline of society – so History teaches”.

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