South Africa's Morality Campaign ; Last Week, the Deputy President Told Parliament Many of the Nations Problems Are Due to a Decline in Ethics

Article excerpt

Some call it desperation. Others see it as inspiration.

But South Africa is pushing ahead with its latest initiative to combat soaring crime and corruption: a nationwide crusade to build up its citizenry's moral fiber.

"Many of our socioeconomic problems result to a large extent from moral degeneration," Deputy President Jacob Zuma told Parliament last week. "There was a time in our history when people would provide guidance to children they did not even know, when the ruling ethic was 'Any child is my child.' We need to revive that spirit."

While character and integrity are familiar topics in US politics, the ambition of institutionalizing and popularizing ethical behavior is unprecedented in South Africa. The crusade appears to be a recognition that solving the crime problem here will require more fundamental changes than investing in better law enforcement. The aim is to steep all South Africans in the ethics of responsibility, self-reliance, and accountability to create a patriotic environment in which criminal behavior is not tolerated. The campaign is one of the first recommendations from the government's newly created Moral Regeneration Committee, established by President Thabo Mbeki.

In a report released in July, the committee said that laws in South Africa were sufficient, but that they were often either ignored or not implemented - because of government incompetence and ordinary South Africans' compromised moral state.

The blame for this lies with the country's former apartheid government, Zuma told Parliament, in his speech kicking off the campaign.

"Apartheid created a particular value system designed to deepen and perpetuate a twisted understanding of values and morality," Zuma said. "It introduced extreme intolerance, and because it had to be maintained through extreme violence, it encouraged violence at every level of society."

This comes at a time when South Africans are increasingly impatient with a government that appears unable to tame a soaring crime rate, create jobs or stamp out corruption. Figures released last month show that crimes against children and assaults have doubled since the end of apartheid's white minority rule, six years ago. Corruption within government is also seen as pervasive. A survey earlier this year found that about 50 percent of South Africans think that "most" or "almost all" government officials are involved in corruption. Newspapers here support that perception with daily accounts of dereliction of duty.

But rather than reinvigorate public support of government efforts, the campaign seems to have confirmed some citizens' suspicions that the government here is ineffectual.

"I think our biggest problem isn't morality. It is education and poverty," says Clement Mushwana, a baby-faced 26-year-old who is attending classes on weekends to complete his high school diploma, while working during the week to support his parents and younger brother. …