MORAL OBLIGATION - JSE MAGAZINE

MORAL OBLIGATION

In the absence of accountability, SA is at risk of becoming more polarised

MORAL OBLIGATION

I recently spent some time in Berlin – a city I have been visiting regularly since 1974. The differences between East and West were startling on that first visit. West Berlin, despite its isolation, was rebuilding and starting to prosper. Across the wall, however, the story was different. The destruction from World War II and the failure of communism to improve lifestyles was glaringly obvious.

I visited the city again shortly before and again after the wall came down – and since then another three times. Gradually a city divided has rejoined. The signs of the division of the city are now difficult to spot. Today, the former East Berlin is a thriving part of a united city. In fact, it’s the centre of the old western part, the Kurfürstendamm area, that now looks a bit dowdy.

It would be easy to say that this was a victory of capitalism over communism. But that is not true. It was a victory of a social contract over communism and unrestrained capitalism.

The incredible recoveries of nations after the war – which saw infrastructure badly damaged (and in some countries, almost totally destroyed) and more than 55 million people killed – owe much to the left-leaning, centrist political parties that came to power and held the position for many years. They based their approach on the moral and political philosophy of social contract – a philosophy that goes back to the days of the ancient Greeks. The theory is that individuals give up some rights or freedoms for the greater good, enabling the protection of remaining rights.

The social contracts of nations have developed far beyond this. The foundation now is an elected democratic government with those in power committed to limiting overwhelming wealth at the cost of perpetual poverty of the mass of people. However, it is also about the protection of rights such as freedom of speech; the right to own property; live where you can afford to live; and have access to decent housing, healthcare and education.

The key is that the government cares for all its people, particularly the less fortunate. The social democracies, particularly of Europe and even more so in Germany, can claim much credit for what they achieved. The result has been the significant growth of the middle classes of Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia.

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The objectives of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are in fact social contracts that aim to reduce poverty and build a sustainable middle class. The National Economic Development and Labour Council and the Labour Courts are among the tools provided to achieve this aim. However, instead of committed and constructive co-operation to reach the objectives, increasingly, we have government, labour and business pointing fingers at each other for the failure to deliver.

The problem is that fault lies everywhere. Rampant corruption in government and excessive greed in the private sector are both to blame. In the confrontational point scoring, there is a seeming lack of concern about those who need help.

It is little surprise that there are service-delivery protests, violent demands for free education and a general contempt for the rule of law. Both the corrupt and the greedy are perpetuating poverty and contributing to the potential of extremist government, which in turn will see diminished freedoms and ultimately diminished wealth.

It has not helped the SA cause that social democracy is under threat worldwide. Freewheeling capitalism, abused by the irresponsible, led to the global economic crisis in 2008. The massive divides in income and the resulting gulfs in economic equality are among the most pressing problems the world will face this year. In fact, the WEF says the gap between rich and poor has been behind the UK’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, adding that urgent action needs to be taken to prevent the polarisation of societies.

It is when the poor give up hope that the populist and unprincipled come to power – and then cling to it at the cost of those who put them there.

By Bruce Cameron
Image: Ricardo Lategan