Political freedom and values beyond elections

2nd August 2016 By: Raymond Suttner

Political freedom and values beyond elections

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by: Ivor Markman

This week’s elections, which could lead to significant changes in electoral power of the ANC and other parties, are very important. But if we want to build a society on an emancipatory basis, we need questions to be addressed that go beyond what is currently being offered by – or is at stake in – elections. That is not to say that parties cannot address these questions, but they first need to be raised.

There are burning issues that trouble many of us, but which do not seem to be part of electoral discourse. These questions relate primarily to ethics, not only with regard to the ANC or any other political party. They require a framework of thinking that needs to be developed and diffused beyond politics into all our interactions in society.

Many people point to the need for ethical leadership and trust, and they lament the breakdown of both trust and the absence of these ethical qualities. Interestingly, it is unclear where these ethical qualities are to come from and what they comprise.

Most ethical questions concern relationships: how we relate to one another, whether we are supportive or undermining of others, and whether we care about their well-being or not. The potential ways of relating to others are multiple and raise many difficult questions. For me, ethical questions relate to the quality of relationships, experience, care, compassion, responsibility and a range of associated concepts.

Consequently we may ask where relationships are hierarchical, how they arise and whether those hierarchies are necessary. How do those who are ranked higher relate to those below? Are the hierarchies rigid and permanent or is there a commitment to empower those lower in the ranks to rise and become leaders or heads of institutions?

Ethics refer also to how disputes between people are addressed: whether this is done through coercion, or through discussion and negotiation, and the extent to which violence becomes a tool for enforcing one position over another.

Ethics and ethical relationships also relate to equality between people. One person enforcing his or her will on another by coercion of course negates that.

Ethics relate to concern for other people, whether or not their welfare is supposed to be or is looked after by any official authority. This is the case whether or not a person who is in need has those needs attended to. 

It relates to whether individuals see it as part of their notion of humanness, their existential realisation to also concern themselves with the well-being of others. This may be a variant of ubuntu, fraternity (“brotherhood” in the Freedom Charter) and other contested concepts pertaining to relationships between people.

Assuming that many people agree with the need to instil these values in South African society, where do we start? There are rules and regulations that are supposed to ensure that officials do not steal what is intended for others and do not divert public funds into private wealth and so on. We can surely insist and find ways of ensuring that these regulations are enforced more rigorously.

These are rules of bureaucratic functioning whose implementation entails a legalistic approach, with which I agree. But it does not probe the question of individual ethical commitment.

There is something more than this that we look for, something that is not dependent on an external sanction and monitoring.  We are surely looking for a quality of humanity that recognises the need or sees value in relating to others on a constructive and concerned basis. That is why the notion of ubuntu was advanced, however differently various individuals and institutions may understand the meaning of the term. (It is used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu armed response, Ubuntu financial services, in management courses and in many other contexts).

Many socialist states embraced notions of the new “man”, a variant of which was advanced by the ANC at one point. Some may mock the fate of these ideas but it is nevertheless important to recognise that the idea of defining qualities that are considered admirable is an important route towards ensuring that these ideas and models do, in fact, take root in the practices of our society.

Ultimately, however, we are asking not just to have enforcement of rules or models of conduct that we regard as worthy of emulation. What we need is for individuals to internalise these values that have a bearing not only on their own well-being, but on that of others. How do we achieve this?

There is no blueprint that can be offered. What I know is that people in South Africa have at various times conducted themselves at a micro and a macro level in ways that are supportive of the needs of other human beings or, alternatively, contrary to those needs or with abuse.

The struggle against apartheid, and the notion of comradeship that was often then developed, was conceived as acting in support of goals that are not for the benefit of any single individual alone. In the case of comradeship, it was conceived as individuals acting together, “as one”, with and in support of another in striving towards realising common goals. Comradeship often meant being willing to risk oneself where necessary to ensure that those with whom one worked were not injured or captured.

But as has been recorded, some used the cover of comradeship to abuse others. Today there are those who were once very brave and concerned about the plight of others, who have turned their focus to their own fortunes and sought to improve these by any means necessary.

What we are speaking of is a sense of connectedness where one takes responsibility for the fate of others or alternatively, where one does not form such a connection or severs a connection that existed.

At the micro level we know that there are similar issues at work. Parents may do all that is possible to ensure that their child is safe and that it incurs no injury. Strangers may rescue a young person from danger, if they see a child about to cross a busy street filled with speeding cars. But others may be indifferent to the same child’s fate, or to that of an elderly or frail person; some may even practise abuse in various situations.

In South Africa, as in other countries, there are reservoirs of goodwill and ill will that can be drawn on to inform our own actions. We may decide to base our actions on the example of a scoundrel or an abuser of one or other type, or someone who is indifferent to what happens to others. But we have examples of men and women who have sacrificed everything and continue to be faithful to that spirit.

There are reservoirs of goodwill and kindness at all levels in our society. There are, regrettably, also ample reservoirs of ill will. We need to find ways of tapping into the goodwill. One way that I think we do this is to consciously advance models of conduct held up for emulation because they are concerned about the well-being of others.

It also relates to gender and being. In the case of men, it is the rough, tough, ‘take no nonsense” violent types who are too widely admired. In the case of women, we have seen in the attacks on Serena Williams and Caster Semenya how dominant notions of what constitutes womanhood are used to stigmatise those who do not meet dominant criteria.

We need to be a society that appreciates diverse and multiple notions of personhood and which values and reinforces the qualities of those who are strong, but also those who are gentle or willing to be vulnerable. We need to embrace notions of beauty that are not stereotypical. Ours needs to be a society where people can be what they are without incurring societal scorn.

Diffusing such ideas requires their being advanced by people and institutions that carry authority. Here faith-based, cultural and sporting bodies would be important, though it is likely that in many of these, much work would need to be done before the ideas are accepted within the institutions let alone advanced in society at large.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and his most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner