Ethics in Public Life – Again!

by Anthony Egan

It’s worth noting – amidst the ongoing debacle around the re-appointment of Brian Molefe to ESKOM; the Constitutional Court effort to get a secret ballot for yet another parliamentary no-confidence vote on Jacob Zuma; and the continuing woes of Social Services – that ethics in public life has once more entered the public spotlight.

Raymond Suttner’s recent comments – that contexts favouring patronage create space for corruption – accurately describe how proximity and access to leaders make public figures corruptible. In a similar vein, Trevor Manuel has suggested that many corrupt public figures simply lack a sense of shame. This is borne out by the way in which Justice Malala’s ‘naming and shaming’ of such persons on his TV show, The Justice Factor, has seemingly had no impact on them.

I fear this culture of local and international moral indifference – and impunity – is having a poisonous effect on our society. Where leaders do as they like and get away with it, where public officials can be bought and sold, what incentive is there for the rest of us to be moral? When politicians rape the nation and steal from the public coffers, why shouldn’t ordinary people do the same? The result: we are drifting into social collapse, the effect of which will be a life (in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes) that is “nasty, mean, brutish and short”.

Sadly, religion is not altogether immune from this decay. Instead of presenting a loud voice of resistance to this crisis, many religious leaders seem to be emulating public figures: promoting escapist spirituality, sucking money out of their flocks, sometimes hobnobbing with corrupt elites. Occasionally even, as we’ve seen, allegedly engaged in crime.

Not everyone, of course. Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has been a superb voice of justice in these times, to name but one figure. Individual pastors and courageous laypeople have also voiced their opposition, echoing and complementing the efforts of secular moral voices in our society. There is opposition to the moral decay of society – even from within ruling elites, though their voices are often muted. There are organisations out there representing a swathe of interests that protest, publicise and prosecute in the courts as far as they can.

What there lacks is coordination. Imagine what a grand coalition of political parties, trade unions, business, students, intellectuals, media and the religious sector could achieve.

History teaches us that it was a coordinated alliance of movements and individuals that brought apartheid to its knees. Despite the real tensions and interests between stakeholders today, is there not a single principle that unites everyone: ethics in public life? The differences – over the nature of the economy, land, free education, crime, social policy – are issues of policy, not principle. They need to be addressed, but cannot be addressed where procedures that address them are poisoned by a context of patronage and corruption. In our present state they are also used to divide people of principle against each other so that corruption may rule.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
See more from Anthony Egan SJ
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Click to subscribe to: