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Opinion

We kept quiet out of loyalty — and bred a culture of fear that eroded public morality

The erosion of public morality is rooted in the decline of public accountability by those meant to protect the interests of the people

30 July 2017 - 00:02 By JOHN SAMUEL

I am a South African — a powerful idea prompting me to write this note about our country. I grew up in a small village in Zululand, a time of joy and fascination as I was able to explore the wonders and beauty of nature.
It has remained with me throughout my life. Being South African is closely related to this sense of place.
Growing up, I slowly became aware of the blight that covered our country. By the time I had finished high school, the battle lines had been drawn and I knew which side I stood on.
I drew strength from the courage and bravery of thousands of South Africans who knew that the evil of apartheid could be overcome.
In the transitional years of the 1990s, alongside many, we shaped the contours of a new world. We had confidence that this new society had to be lodged in the vision of a better life for all South Africans. It became the central thread of our work.
Our constitution emerged infused with that powerful vision, based on moral courage.
Shaping a new society called for this courage, because we knew this society had to be rooted in something above the limitations of politics.
The birth of a new nation in 1994 was both a privilege and a challenge. We were aware of constraints but had wanted to harness political power for the benefit of all South Africans.
It propelled us forward.In January 1995, I joined the new national Department of Education in a senior position.
Despite much preparation, we were not at all prepared for the subterranean text on the walls of the old government offices we moved into.
The absence of guidelines shaped by the ideals of the struggle, coupled with a pervading old apartheid culture, was a toxic mix.
Our work was informed by the idea that obtaining political power was not an end in itself, nor was it a means to advance personal interest; we had to do the right thing.
While some advances were made in the first five years of the new government, there were also troubling signs that we tended to close our eyes to.
Some of us kept quiet, believing that this was not the time to be critical and that it was too early to point out shortcomings.
With hindsight I now know that it is never too early to be critical of a newly democratic society. The health and strength of a democracy is determined by its citizens being actively engaged in this responsibility.
In fact, "this is not the time" helped prepare the ground for a society that grew ever more intolerant of any opposing view, opening the door to a political culture that has blighted our country.
I remember when Madiba attended the ANC national executive committee in 2003 and was subject to a relentless attack for "interfering" in the Aids crisis.
While there were a few insipid attempts to defend him, most NEC members kept quiet.
Any criticism of the government's stand on Aids was treated as if it was an attack on the country.
A culture of fear and intolerance encouraged arrogance, deceit and total lack of public accountability in our government.
Alienation between political power and the people became commonplace. Government officials and cabinet ministers would tell half-truths and present distortions parading as truth, with hardly any sense of public accountability.
Board after board of state-owned enterprises would draw handsome fees presiding over one mess after another. These enterprises became the plaything of a few to advance personal interests; a feeding trough, with vast amounts vanishing.
The erosion of public morality is rooted in the decline of public accountability by those meant to protect the interests of the people...

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