LETTER: Time for a moral introspection

President Jacob Zuma
File picture: Reuters

Scams, graft and patronage have always been at the centre of public discussion, but have these subjects ever loomed so large as they do today? We are bombarded constantly with new reports of defalcation and corruption.

The most significant recent development in this process is the SA Council of Churches’ Unburdening Panel report spotlighting “systematic patterns of government wrongdoing” and “inappropriate control of state systems through a power elite”, which the SACC describes as systematically siphoning off state assets by or via a government which has lost its legitimacy.

Not since apartheid has the SACC condemned civil authorities so sweepingly. But as welcome as this is, it contains a trap: the political crisis risks overshadowing a deeper crisis of morality, which can be addressed only on an inter-faith basis that offers to transform South African society.

Our country has lost its moral compass. Public morality, however, does not occur in a vacuum; it is intimately related to private morality. What we do as individuals forms the basis of what we expect from our leaders, and shapes the limits of what we will allow them to get away with.

The SACC’s action will therefore be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a moral re-examination and renewal at every level of South African life: not only in government but in the home, schools and the marketplace.

Each one of us must consider where we stand not only politically but morally. And we must re-examine the culture of excessive individualism and moral relativism which produces mantras like, “Everyone is doing it so it must be OK”, “No one will probably find out, so what’s the harm?” and “I have to look after myself; I owe others nothing”.

We urgently need an expanded form of the SACC’s “unburdening” initiative, aimed at renewing our individual souls. This means an expanded role for all churches, not only the ones which fall into the SACC fold.

The loss of our nation’s moral compass has been in direct proportion to the spread of secularisation and the retreat of religion. In reaction, religion has sought to save face by stressing the individual’s private relationship with God.

But this has come at a cost of the engagement of outer realities. We have forfeited one of religion’s most priceless gifts: that the individual has a moral responsibility to the community.

Our abandonment of this vital awareness of duty to our neighbours is connected to the plundering of our state by individuals, who see themselves as without social obligation and as accountable to no one.

It is still popular to talk about God, but only when it suits us, as a way of plugging gaps in our knowledge. We have turned the Supreme Being into a God of gaps.

When it becomes possible to fill a gap with secular knowledge, God is removed from that gap and used to plug another. It is instructive to listen to secular university students speak on how God allegedly becomes redundant as gaps are filled from non-religious sources.

Thus the sacred realm becomes increasingly divided from the ever-changing, always newly fashionable gods of our material world.

Because religion itself is conflicted in many areas it is difficult to see how it can lead the campaign for moral renewal in its present form. This may be one of the reasons why the SACC has sought to engage government immorality afresh; because its dwindling influence on the conduct of private individuals makes a political re-engagement the only option.

But while such re-engagement is welcome, it can have a lasting effect only if it is accompanied by a drive to restore religion as a moral force in all aspects of our lives. This requires a religious transformation of South Africa, encompassing multiple faiths.

It needs the inclusive support of every tradition which promotes the idea of a moral order. Until this is done, our religious institutions will continue to fail to make significant contributions to the remaking of the country.

– Andrew Tainton, PE

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