Values in South Africa: In Search of Self-Respect

Values in South Africa: In Search of Self-Respect

In his Nelson Mandela memorial lecture in late July, President Thabo Mbeki expressed concern about the dominance of acquisitive values amongst South Africans. Mbeki stated that the new political order had inherited from the apartheid years 'a well-entrenched value system that placed individual acquisition of wealth at the very centre of the value system of our society'.

Similar concerns were also raised in government's 'A Nation in the Making' report, released in June. The report highlighted the extent to which consumer goods, consumerism, and 'conspicuous consumption' have become determinants of worth and status and how this compels people 'to operate on, and sometimes beyond, the margins of legality'.

The Heartlines campaign has also recently highlighted the issue of values. Heartlines is a civil society initiative which aims to create debate about, and reinforce, a set of core values amongst South Africans. Heartlines say that eight values – accepting difference, responsibility, forgiveness, perseverance, self-control, honesty, compassion and second chances – are shared by many South Africans.

A question arises. What does Heartlines say regarding the concerns about acquisitiveness expressed by Mbeki and others? Some of the Heartlines values, such as those of responsibility, perseverance, self-control and honesty would appear to challenge acquisitive behaviour directly, particularly when this is criminal in nature. For instance, Heartlines says that 'Theft, corruption, fraud and family breakdown are all issues that can be traced back to a lack of honesty. Honesty is the value that underpins the decision not to take things that don't belong to one, along with respect for other people and their possessions.'

But the importance of the values prioritized by Heartlines becomes less clear when one asks what drives contemporary South African acquisitiveness. A key underlying factor here would seem to be a deep-lying insecurity about personal worth amongst South Africans. This insecurity is in part the legacy of apartheid racism which systematically, undermined people's dignity and self respect.

In South Africa today the breakdown of communal solidarity linked to the dissolution of apartheid and the increased social mobility of sections of society, reinforce this insecurity about personal worth. Highly conspicuous consumption in an economic environment characterised by inequality, poverty and economic insecurity further reinforces it.

As with other psychological phenomena such as trauma not all are equally vulnerable to the debilitating consequences of such insecurity. But amongst the many who appear to be vulnerable, this status insecurity feeds not only into acquisitive behaviour, whether legal or illegal, but also into violence, substance abuse or mental or physical illness.

Apartheid's racial hierarchy has now metamorphosed into a society still characterised by radical inequality. Instead of racial classification the language of status is now associated with the display of consumer goods. But substituting institutionalized racism with a social order characterised by conspicuous consumption in the midst of extreme inequality, adds insult to injury for those who are not amongst the upwardly mobile elite. Within a social and political order which promises people equality the prominent display of the new symbols of status humiliates the majority of people, rubbing their faces in their marginality and exclusion.

Characteristic of many secular societies, South Africa appears to face something of a normative vacuum in terms of personal morality. There is an emphasis on tolerance of different groups and opinions. Yet religious and cultural systems which speak directly to questions of personal values, no longer exercise the control over society that they did in the past.

Insofar as it appears that criminality, violence, and other problems which currently plague South Africa are related to an absence of values, initiatives such as Heartlines have a potentially valuable role to play. But rather than indicating that South Africa has been overcome by greed, the dominant preoccupation with status symbols reflects the fact that institutionalised racism has done immense damage to people's psyches and self respect.

Some of the Heartlines values, such as those of acceptance and compassion, are relevant to addressing these problems, but only in a limited sense. Heartlines for instance motivates us to 'learn to accept and embrace the differences within this multi-cultural society'. But Heartlines does not really speak to the deeper need for acknowledgement and self respect which is manifested in South Africa.

The Constitution, the founding document of democratic South Africa, in some ways contributes to the normative vacuum when it comes to personal behaviour. For example the Constitution says little about values such as honesty or the need for generosity or kindness towards others.

Nevertheless the idea of a society founded on human dignity, which is arguably the central value put forward by the Constitution, powerfully addresses the need for an inclusive society – a society where people can be accepted and respected as they are.

This suggests the need to put decency, civility and respect at the heart of our interactions with our fellow citizens. It also suggests the need for a political vision of human dignity that more clearly addresses the need of people to feel acknowledged and respected as belonging to the greater community of South Africans.

David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in Business Day, 1 September 2006.

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