Daily Maverick Morality Politics

President Zuma on religion and “humanity”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.

If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.

“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.

The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.

My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.

This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.

If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.

If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?

Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.

Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.

I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.

And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.

Morality Politics

Jackson Mthembu and the Twittering revolutionaries

While there’s a truckload of recent religious batshittery I had planned to note here (sick people dying at faith-healing rallies, and so forth), Jackson Mthembu and a couple of other idiots are presently too difficult to ignore. First, there was yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that recognised the Democratic Alliance as a legal person, and one which furthermore has the right to call for a review of the decision to drop corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.

Section 45 of the SCA judgement reads (excerpted):

It clearly is in the public interest that the issues raised in the review application be adjudicated and, in my view, on the papers before us, it cannot seriously be contended that the DA is not acting, genuinely and in good faith, in the public interest.

The ANC press release, penned by dear Jackson, wants

to highlight the following: The continued attempt by the DA to use the Courts to undermine and paralyse government

Significant respect for the judiciary there. And of course, no attempt at political point-scoring. Which is good, seeing as Mac Maharaj had also remarked on the ruling and was quoted as saying “anyone who wishes to use Zuma SCA judgment for party political point-scoring would be doing a disservice to our country”. Good thing Jackson didn’t do that, then.

The other idiots are those intent on seeing malice or racism in anything that Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier, might have to say on Twitter. And, of course, to accuse anyone who dares to defend her as some sort of mindless zombie. Zille is a loose cannon on Twitter, no doubt. And as I’ve argued before, I think she’s got some strange and silly ideas. Today, she caused her regular round of outrage as a result of a tweet from yesterday which spoke of the Western Cape accommodating “ECape education refugees”.

If you can’t see why this is racist, then apparently you are a racist. Or so goes logic on Twitter (and also for Jackson, but more on him in a moment). Perhaps we should start at the beginning, by consulting a dictionary. One definition of a refugee could be “one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution”. Of course, usually refugees flee a country, not failing education systems in the Eastern Cape. But Helen Zille was presumably using the word metaphorically. As I said on Twitter, her usage could certainly be described as hyperbolic, but racist? How does that work?

The way it works is simply that the pupils fleeing the Eastern Cape happen to be black. Hence, describing them as refugees is racist. Now, many refugees everywhere in the world are black. And the cause of this involved a fair amount of racism, in economics, in politics, in every aspect of the way some countries have operated (and some continue to). In this country, with our demographics and our history of social inequality, it stands to reason that most people who have something to flee would be black. Note that Zille never referred to race – she described them as refugees, which seems to have been intended as a description (while hyperbolic, as I mentioned) of the situation they faced themselves in, and which they decided to flee.

It’s a contingent detail that they are black, and that’s not a detail that’s relevant here – the material circumstance of a bunch of pupils (who happen to be black) is the issue, and the one Zille was presumably referring to in describing them as refugees. That they came to be refugees would undoubtedly involve racism, yes – but that’s not the issue here. Once they experience conditions that are worth fleeing from, how they got into that position is a matter for historians – describing them as being in that position doesn’t endorse it, or make the claim that they are there because of their race.

And now, let’s welcome Jackson back into the conversation:

The ANC is vindicated by the statement made by Helen Zille. This is typical of the erstwhile apartheid government’s mentality that resorted to influx control measures to restrict black people from the so-called white areas. (eh? These “refugees” are coming into the Western Cape – Zille’s made no effort to keep them out. Bit of an apartheid-Godwin, methinks.)

Zille’s racist statement underpins the DA’s policy of exclusionism of blacks. She will never say the same thing about whites who relocate from one area of the country to the Western Cape or even those who relocate from other countries to the Western Cape. To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to… labelling them with a tag associated with foreigners.

Zille’s reference to the Eastern Cape pupils as refugees is motivated by political opportunism, to be sure – it’s a chance to highlight how much better the Western Cape primary education system seems to be when compared to that of the Eastern Cape. But it also indicates sympathy, or at least an awareness (back to the definition of the word) that they are fleeing from an unpleasant situation. Any other sort of relocation, such as the examples Jackson uses, would only be of relevance as counterexamples or evidence of Zille “reducing” these pupils to anything if the situations were comparable.

Typical migration – whether for economic reasons, or to get an education – is driven by preference, not by need. Or rather, the needs are less severe. A word like “refugee” makes sense in the context of a systemic failure of some market, not simply someone moving to Gauteng because they find it difficult to find a job in the Cape. The point is that these pupils have been “reduced” to leaving their home-towns because the Eastern Cape education system has failed them – not because of anything Helen Zille has done.

But as is sadly so often the case, outrage and race-baiting are winning the day, both on Twitter and in the hypothetical mind of Jackson Mthembu. I agree that Zille’s Tweet was poorly-considered, as many of them are. And I think she’s said many unfortunate (and in the case of HIV/AIDS, appalling) things. But in this case, all she’s been is hyperbolic – and the racism exists only in the minds of those who see it in her use of the word “refugee”.

P.S. From the Kieno Kammies show in CapeTalk567, a 10 minute conversation on this between Jackson Mthembu and Helen Zille.