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SONA 2018: An ethicist’s perspective

While offering no quick fix solutions, Cyril Ramaphosa's SONA speech was nothing less than a call to renewed cooperation for the common good – something which will resonate with Catholics, says Anthony Egan SJ. He analyses the president's maiden address from a position of Catholic Social Teaching and looks at the ethics that might underpin the president's term.

Apart from the fact that it was neither (a) a demagogic rant, nor (b) a political circus, this year’s South African State of the Nation Address (SONA) was a welcomed step forward in it contained much hope amidst the criticism of the past presidency, offering hope that a socio-political turnaround is in the offing. While much of what President Cyril Ramaphosa proposed for the future can be criticised for erring perhaps on the side of idealism, filled with promises but thin on how the renewal of South Africa is going to be implemented, SONA resonated with an ethos that those acquainted with Catholic social ethics (often called Catholic Social Teaching or CST for short) would find familiar.

Since 1893, the Catholic Church has promoted a global series of economic and political values rooted in theology but articulated in dialogue with secular democratic ideas, an outline of what the Church considers to be a just public ethics. Many of these values – justice, rule of law, good governance, dignity of persons, option for the poor, rights of workers, common good and solidarity – cropped up ‘anonymously’ in the President’s speech.

The Catholic conception of justice is multi-faceted, includes procedures in accordance with laws and statutes, and above all focuses on social justice. It is close to the idea of ‘justice as fairness’ of political philosopher John Rawls and has as its goal a society rooted in greater equality for all people. It presupposes a society based on the rule of law and dignity of persons, with particular concern for the wellbeing of those who are poor. It insists on good governance and insists on human solidarity; the latter increasingly understood in relation to stewardship of creation as a whole. Though in its articulation it can shift between democratic capitalism and social democracy (excluding the two polarities of neoliberalism and state socialism), its vision of the good society is basically that of a social democratic market economy.

A balancing act

This was, to my mind, the underlying vision of President Ramaphosa’s speech on 16 February. Rooted in a thorough critique of South Africa’s institutions and institutional practices (the latter severely tarnished by mismanagement, corruption and state capture), the president’s speech offered in broad strokes an alternative vision – of renewed institutions, efficient governance, pro-poor policies and economic growth.

Ramaphosa’s critique of South African institutions was both welcome and timely. He promised not only to make them more efficient, but vowed to clean out corruption. While to my mind thin on the specifics of how he plans to achieve the latter, his commitment is creditable. At the core of CST’s understanding of governance is efficiency, accountability and honesty, as well as the principle of subsidiarity. The latter suggests that good governance is devolved – local issues are better administered locally, regional issues regionally, national issues nationally. The logic of this is that local issues are better understood and managed locally, etc.

My sense here is that while such an approach deserves consideration as part of a wider effort to improve governance, if it is to be effective two stages will be needed. The first stage must address, prosecute and punish gross malfeasance. Given the ways communities (local, regional, national) can become – dare I say in many places have become – centres of patronage and corruption, this must be rooted out first. The standard literature on fighting corruption (including ‘best practices’ studies) reminds us that to achieve reduced corruption levels a balance must be struck between prosecution and mercy, literally ‘frying big fish’ as an example to others while – often for the sake of not paralysing administration of institutions – letting ‘little fish’ go.

The second stage – restoring efficient government – means introducing checks and balances, independent auditing mechanisms and transparent processes that balance anti-corruption measures with getting things done. Corruption thrives in environments choked with red tape – and with no oversight/recourse mechanisms.

Another important aspect of this is professionalism independent of political influence or patronage. Ramaphosa made this point repeatedly – regarding policing and state owned enterprises. He is to be commended for it and should make this a priority.

While Catholic ethics always seek to moderate justice with mercy, one cannot function without the other. I was disturbed in the speech by what I sensed was an almost too generous attitude to some of the top figures facing corruption charges. There is a temptation (set by the ‘easy’ amnesties of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission) to offer blanket forgiveness.

But forgiveness in Catholic moral discourse is never blanket. Forgiveness and reconciliation – in the context often of sacramental confession – is indeed given, once sin is confessed and reparations are made. Put bluntly, one cannot be forgiven something unless one admits moral responsibility. Likewise, there has to be some kind of penance and reparation. In the case of many who will be accused for gross misconduct I see no alternative to prosecution and if convicted prison sentences. For others, perhaps, some form of lustration – ‘exile’ from public or professional life for a period of time – may be in order.

Failure to do this will send a bad message: you can get away with anything if you are a public figure.

As I noted, it is a complex balance – justice being done and mercy being shown. But without it the great promises of cleaning up governance made in SONA 2018 will not be kept. And – in the worst case scenario – those whom the president directly or indirectly critiqued will creep back into positions of power to continue their old tricks.

A renewed South Africanness

Ramaphosa spoke at length on renewing South Africa socially, politically and economically. Corruption was not the only cause of the dire situation South Africa finds itself in. Massive economic inequalities and the legacy of the past clearly weigh heavy on the country. Ramaphosa introduced a raft of new economic and social proposals to reduce inequality and promote economic growth – from education to land reform, from the increased digitalisation of the country to the promotion of tourism as a source of income. Once again, I heard echoes of CST themes as he spoke: common good, option for the poor, rights of workers and human dignity. Yet the way in which he articulated them, whether insisting on acceleration of land redistribution or mine workers’ role in mining, moved beyond political or religious cliché into a central CST tenet: with rights come responsibilities.

In claiming and exercising my right to something, not only do I place an obligation on another/ others, I am also responsible for what I do. It is my responsibility to exercise my rights for the common good. And exactly what constitutes the common good – notably because, since we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, the ‘best’ is not always the ‘good’ – is often far from clear.

My sense is that Ramaphosa thoroughly understands this problem. His introduction of many reform proposals were masterpieces of nuance: considering immediate actions, short-term possibilities and long-term goals, always aware of the law of unintended consequences. Thus, he insisted that the new Mining Charter be revisited, that land reform be pegged to food security, and free university education be introduced gradually. Though no doubt unpopular with populist ideologues, this kind of strategic thinking – thoroughly compatible with mainstream CST, I believe – shows a commitment to real social change, balancing the possible and the desirable, development and growth, poverty alleviation and sustainability, while implicitly inviting stakeholders to consider how to promote equality in a manner that generates a ‘win-win’ for all.

Finally, though never expressed explicitly, the CST theme of solidarity loomed large in SONA 2018. In various ways Ramaphosa articulated and embraced solidarity as a value for South Africa’s future. While clearly embracing the ‘long’ (as opposed to the less than salubrious recent) African National Congress tradition of justice, service and inclusivity (exemplified by his references to Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and the 1955 Freedom Charter), Ramaphosa’s celebration of Section Nine institutions, civil society and those heroic individuals who kept the ‘long tradition’ alive was nothing less than a call to a ‘new South Africanness’.  Ultimately, while offering no quick fix solutions, his SONA speech was nothing less than a call to renewed cooperation for the common good.

Most impressive of all was his personal commitment, epitomised in his words that echoed Isaiah 6.8: “Send me.” (“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” NIV). At one level I heard a president whose sense of solidarity is with his country. At another level I heard a call from Cyril Ramaphosa to all of us to do what we can to rebuild South Africa.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.