In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness Kurtz is described as the ultimate product of Western civilisation. All Europe "contributed to the making" of him, and he went out to the Congo with the intention of exerting "a power for good practically unbounded." Yet by the time Marlow reaches him the "powers of darkness" had "claimed him for their own....He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land - I mean, literally." Turning to the person listening to his account of his journey as they sit on the bank of the Thames Marlow states:
"You can't understand. How could you? - with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums - how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by way of solitude - utter solitude without a policeman - utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness."
Conrad's book is commonly used to try and understand the pathologies of Africa. But it seems to me that this passage provides a profound insight into the descent of Europe into the moral abyss following Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Contemporaneous accounts by German dissidents document a moment, in March of that year, at which opposition to the Nazi takeover simply collapsed. In his diary entry of March 10 1933 Victor Klemperer noted: "A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the face of the earth... No one dares say anything any more, everyone is afraid." Looking back from his exile in Britain in 1939 the German writer, Sebastian Haffner, wrote "the moral inadequacy of the German character shown in that month is too monstrous to suppose that history will not one day call them to account for it."
From here onwards a kind of moral inversion occurred in German society. The Nazis proceeded to subvert those things that keep ordinary people decent and honest - the concern at what a neighbour might say, consciousness of the watching policeman, the fear of the gallows - and direct them towards morally perverted ends. A public opinion which had been largely opposed to their programme was turned and took up the cry "Juda verrecke!" Over the next twelve years the forces of darkness would progressively claim Germany and Europe for their own.
Where public opinion silently consented to the persecution of the Jews - and punishment directed against any individual who opposed it - there was nothing left to stand in the way of the implementation of the final solution. Without a kind of innate strength the dividing line between right and wrong was, for most individuals involved in the machinery of destruction, an ever-shifting one.
In his seminal account of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg gives the example of one Ernst Biberstein who started out as a Protestant Pastor, then moved into the Church Ministry, then the Reich Security Main Office, and finally ended up as chief of Einsatzkommando 6 in Southern Russia. In this position he was responsible for the murder of two to three thousand people. "To Biberstein," Hilberg noted, "the moral dividing line was like the receding horizon. He walked toward it, but could never reach it."
In those few cases where the Nazis met openly expressed public opposition, their self certainty wavered. Denmark was the one country in Western Europe where German officials refused to cooperate with the SS units sent in to organise the deportation of the Jews. This sabotage of the orders from Berlin by the occupying German authorities allowed almost the entire Jewish population of that country to escape into hiding or into exile in Sweden. In Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt writes that Denmark was "the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those [German officials] exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course."
As Conrad notes, and the German example illustrates, where the restraining forces of the law and public opinion are absent, or completely twisted, there is really no limit to the evil that man can commit. Now, in most modern Western societies - such as Britain - the weight of public opinion and the power of the law will act to keep people honest. As long as a person remains attuned to those things they are unlikely to do much harm to others. In such a society the only question the individual need ask is: ‘is this permissible?' However imperfectly, it is the better qualities of individuals which are honoured and rewarded - and the worst which are shamed and punished.
South Africa is a far more morally treacherous society. As our past history shows majority opinion is not always a dependable guide to moral conduct. Mixed marriages were once almost universally regarded - at least by white opinion - as "an evil." Not so long ago the consensus in the mainstream English language press was in favour of cadre deployment and the ANC's policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' towards Mugabe. Even today the principle of 'demographic representivity' goes largely unquestioned. Thankfully, our newspapers are more pluralistic and critical than they used to be, and more intolerant of corruption within our ruling class. But this does not change the fact that our recent democratic reopening owes as much to the ambitions of bed men counteracting each other - or ‘nail knocking out nail' - as it does to good thumping evil.
There is also a strong drift of our society towards corruption. One sign of this is the fading power of the law.
It seems that the criminal justice system is becoming so weakened that anyone stupid or arrogant enough to get caught can still escape real punishment provided they have the money to pay off the right policeman, or, at a grander level, employ lawyers to pursue a strategy of endless appeals.
The Scorpions are currently being dismantled because the powerful and corrupt have finally had enough of living in holy terror of investigation, exposure, and prosecution.
Another, is the way in which the morally flexible are able to rapidly progress onwards and upwards, while the good often find themselves knocked back. It is too often the businessmen who are willing to enter into mutually beneficial relationships with politicians who win the big government contracts and tenders.
Yet for all this, one of the redeeming qualities of South African society is that it has thrown up individuals willing to take a stand against the prevailing power and opinion. The current predicament of Vusi Pikoli illustrates all that is good and bad in our society. Here is an individual who remained faithful to his constitutional obligations to prosecute without fear and favour, even though it cost him his position.
Such stubbornness makes him as threatening to the new ANC leadership, as it did to the old, and they are hastening to get rid of him for good. ANC MPs, many of whom were shocked at his initial suspension, are now preparing to make his removal permanent. His successor will no doubt be someone who is sufficiently malleable, incompetent or corrupt, to be relied upon not to prosecute wrongdoing by senior officials of the regime.
So where does this leave the rest of us? In a society such as ours it is dangerous to subcontract out our moral choices to our rulers or majority opinion. The key question has to be not whether something is allowable, or in one's self interest, or will be applauded - but whether it is the right thing to do.
Having said that: it is no easy thing to avoid compromising with - or escape being compromised by - the more malign forces in this society. Where we fall down, and most of us will at some point or another, the choice is between going completely under or trying to pick ourselves up again. In these circumstances sometimes we have to rely on the continued faith of others, in ourselves.
"The earth for us is a place to live in," Marlow states, "where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove! - breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don't you see? your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in - your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business."