Sunday 26 May 2013

Time to ditch the grim legacy of Africa

This opinion piece was published in the Sunday Independent on 26 May 2013.

Time to ditch the grim legacy of Africa

It has been said that, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” I’ve been thinking about integrity a lot in the last few days.

Last weekend, I spoke with a range of church and community leaders at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Contextual Ministry about what it means to be “prophets and healers in broken communities”. From this serious consideration of our fractured societies, I went to the different context of the 50th birthday party of successful businessman – and former parishioner of mine – Moss Mashishi, a man of high ethical standards. I also found food for thought when I attended the graduation of African fellows of the Aspen Institute’s values-based leadership programme, headed by Isaac Shongwe.

Then on Wednesday the Free Market Foundation honoured me with a Luminary Award and invited me to address them on “Integrity in Leadership”. I was impelled to consider more deeply what it means to “do the right thing, whether or not anyone is watching”, as one definition of integrity puts it.

I found it helpful to go back to the original meaning of the word. Derived from the Latin for being untouched, it conveys a sense of wholeness, completeness, soundness and coherence. And this set me thinking about what makes for wholeness in South African society – and what undermines it.

The wholeness to which we aspire is best described in our constitution, especially its preamble. We find there a commitment to healing past divisions; strengthening democratic values and practices; promoting social justice and fundamental human rights; and improving the quality of life of all citizens, so freeing the potential of each of us. Integrity means coherence between these commitments, our attitudes, our words and our actions, so that at every level the behaviour of each one of us, whether in public or private, takes us closer to the great South Africa of which we have dreamt.

Ten days ago, I sat in on part of the National Assembly Budget Debate on Arts and Culture. There was some fine rhetoric from around the chamber. But I could not help wondering how much of it was grandstanding and political point-scoring, and how much of it would ever be translated into concrete positive action.

And when we think about what undermines wholeness, the list is all too long. There are the grim legacies of the past, the consequential capacity weaknesses across all sectors, and the shortcomings and failings that we continue to generate. And from Guptagate to gender violence, from the secrecy bill to inadequate schooling, we can all name other stumbling blocks, too many of our own making, that litter the path to a better future.

But this is no reason to give up. Being human means being fallible, and our progress will never be perfect. Having integrity gives us, among other things, the honesty to admit and address our failings, and to keep on striving for better.

Yesterday was Africa Day, and we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity. On May 25, 1963, leaders from 33 African states agreed to enhance co-operation and promote the independence of other countries still under colonial rule. Since then, and with the replacement of the OAU with the 54-member African Union in 2002, great progress has been made over a wide front. But at the same time, conflicts still tear nations and regions apart, some leaders have amassed personal power and wealth at terrible cost to their people, and democratic and economic development still all too often has a long way to go.

But these weaknesses do not undermine the best of the earlier vision. And men and women of integrity still arise who are committed to leading the peoples of our continent into a better tomorrow. Our Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma – who, having turned around the Department of Home Affairs, was last year elected the AU Commission’s first woman chairperson – is just such a leader.

The great African author Chinua Achebe said: “One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.” That’s a high standard, especially in a world where cutting corners and being economical with the truth seem to be becoming increasingly acceptable, as if all that mattered were the so-called eleventh commandment – thou shall not be found out.

But honesty in politics and business matters. Corruption costs continent and country billions.

Integrity is not just a quality we seek in politics and business. This week we have been mourning the sudden, sad death of journalist and broadcaster Vuyo Mbuli. We know he had a colourful life at times, yet he used his media skills to promote the building up of South Africa. His warm, generous-hearted style, and deeper sense of decency, enabled him to challenge interviewees (of whom I once was) with probing questions that would not permit fudged answers or empty platitudes. He demanded the coherence between words and action that characterises integrity. Our country is the poorer for his early death.

Integrity is for every walk of life. And it’s not just about professional conduct either. That’s often just our outer shell. As Confucius said: “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” It is when we have integrity in our personal lives, going all the way down inside our innermost being, that we will be most able to live a good life, almost automatically. Shaping our character and fundamental attitudes is also best done in the home, from an early age, and it comes through focusing our lives on all that makes for soundness and wholeness.

St Paul recognised this, almost two millennia ago, when he wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things”.

Integrity oils the wheels of society. It builds trust, trust builds confidence, and confidence builds social cohesion. This helps sustain an atmosphere in which we welcome being held to account by one another, knowing that robust debate is what best furthers our shared commitment to nation-building.

Integrity is for everyone, everywhere. As a fundamental part of our being, it is the necessary foundation for a South Africa where we can all enjoy wholeness in our lives.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon said: “It’s not what we eat but what we digest that makes us strong; not what we gain but what we save that makes us rich; not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned; and not what we profess but what we practice that gives us integrity.” Now there’s something worth chewing on in the week ahead.

- Makgoba is Archbishop of Cape Town.