Friday, May 29, 2009

We all play follow the leader

By Jonathan Jansen

Min of Transport and his R1 mil Merc 'gift'
Bad news for the fight against corruption

Values are spread through example

What bothered me about the now infamous saga of the Mercedes-Benz of Minister S’bu Ndebele was not so much that he was given a luxury car by the beneficiaries of his government when he was premier of KwaZulu-Natal. What disturbed me was that he just did not “get it”.

He did not understand that he was already paid for doing his job as a public servant. He did not see the blurring of the distinction between the perception of wrongdoing and actual misdeeds when it comes to leadership in government.

Last week, I left my wallet behind on an early morning flight from Johannesburg to Durban. Someone cleaning the plane must have found my property and taken the cash and the wallet. However, neatly displayed on the back seat of the plane were my bank cards and my driver’s licence. The thief had some residual conscience.

It is this loss of residual conscience in our brutalised country that worries me, for between the Merc and the wallet lies a telling tale about the state of the nation. We see this loss of conscience in the recent degrading attacks by public figures on their rivals in other political parties. We see it in the casualness with which South Africans treat rape, murder and random violence. And we see it in the ubiquitous spread of corrupt behaviour, starting with those who already have much.

Some of my more educated friends, not Afro-pessimists by a long shot, believe we have lost the values fight. South African leaders are already showing the way — everybody seems to be in their jobs for themselves.

When such events happen, my cellphone normally lights up with journalists, parents and teachers all asking the same question: what is the role of school in countering this pervasive loss of values? I say the following: schools reflect our broader culture; if society is violent and corrupt, so are schools. Having said that, schools can push back and teachers have a role to play.

But remember three things, I advise:

One, we cannot beat values into children. Schools that still use corporal punishment break the law. Parents who physically beat their children are cowards. No child alters their behaviour permanently by being physically humiliated in the classroom .

Two, we cannot “inculcate” values into children through curriculum. It has been tried for decades through what one ethnic department called “right living”.

Three, we cannot instil values by nagging and shouting them into children. After a while, they stop hearing you .

Values are learned through potent examples of leadership. It is taught when the head of a university returns part of his salary for student bursaries. It is taught when a senior politician refuses to take an approved increase in salary because of how the economic crisis affects the poor in his home constituency. And it is taught when a corporate leader voluntarily takes a cut in salary to bring his remuneration in line with decency.

A man working for South African Airways saw my cards on the seat of the plane. He recognised the name and called the University of the Free State, where I have yet to start employment. The university called me in Durban, where I currently work, to announce the good news. I then called the good Samaritan who had kept the property for me in a safe place.

It is because of people like Gamdie Benjamin that I retain hope.

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