Thursday, October 30, 2008

Feedback: Kader Asmal - Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture

Kader Asmal.

The University of Johannesburg on Tuesday evening (28 Oct '08) hosted Prof Kader Asmal, who delivered this year's Helen Joesph Memorial Lecture entitled "Law, morality and ethics in public life in South Africa" (PDF).

Struggling through ill-health, Asmal raised concerns about the extent of public deliberation in the country. Pointing to some notable erosions in the quality of the national political life, he argued that that politics and morality have become divorced from one another.

The following paragraph illustrates some of Asmal's reservations about the current trajectory of the ANC and the heated rhetoric of the Zuma-Mbeki contest. Participatory democracy, he said, is about more than merely the indexes of governance that you meet, but rather the collective ideals that we set for ourselves as a society. We are clearly failing to articulate and enact these ideals:
"It seems to me that we need to revisit our views on the role of ethics and morality in public life as we approach an unprecedented level of upheaval in our political landscape which offers both threats and opportunities. But we will only benefit from these events if we do not fall into the trap of personality politics but actually ask ourselves profound questions about what challenges these events pose to our values and our views and what principled positions we wish to adopt in response to ensure that our journey as a young democracy continues to evolve on the basis of sound practices. And our questions must move beyond individuals, institutions and statutes if we are to make real progress and not simply tick another box on an institutional matrix of how we may be performing." [p.2]

One of the revelations of the evening was Asmal's disapproval of the dissolution of the Scorpions (DSO), the elite anti-corruption law enforcement agency.

"Who can deny that the unseemly sight of travel-voucher scams has denuded our Parliament of its reputation and the credibility of every single member who is tarred with the brush of the behaviour of the institution in its latest actions to try and settle the debt for liquidators at taxpayers’ expense?" [p.3]

The Prof intimated that it was this which prompted him to resign from Parliament in a gesture of protest:

"A few months ago we had the burning question as to whether Members of Parliament implicated in ‘Travelgate’ should be allowed to vote on the legislation effectively disbanding the Scorpions. Given that their ‘interest’ in the matter was not strictly speaking financial, though one could convincingly argue that it was, it became a very real possibility that they would be voting on the amendments without having to either declare their interests or in fact recuse themselves from voting. [p.4]

"What values are we inculcating in public life when we allow the arms deal to be an albatross around the neck of one of our continent’s most hopeful stories of transition and possibly, at a global level, of harmony and unity of purpose amidst diversity and challenge? The ominous cloud of the arms deal continues to hang over individuals and institutions alike permanently reminding us of the risks to our societal fabric posed by an absence of ethics, morals and principles in public life." [4]

Asmal also voiced his disgust over the bout of xenophobic violence in May and urged the government to open a commission of enquiry into the matter, "whose very existence" he explained, "would play an educational role". The ANC veteran also cautioned that the incitements to violence displayed by the Youth League and others could pose a threat to the constitutional order.

As an example of the dissonance between the codified regulations and the actual practice of ethical governance, Asmal drew on the example of the Reserve Bank Governor's latest salary hike and the bulging pay-packets of the Eskom board members. Although not legally proscribed, such actions are insensitive to those poor people who live frugally under an inflation rate of between 3-6%.

Asmal spoke movingly of the duty of leaders towards those who have allowed them the privilege of governing and the responsibility that this entails. The passage below is a neat synthesis of his message:

"We need to launch a clarion call that will compel us to reclaim the struggle’s moral just cause that the people come before the personal, that actions must speak louder than our words and that we will always treasure the noble honour to be servant leaders and not leaders who serve ourselves." [p.9]

Thank you to Asmal for giving this lecture under trying circumstances; QPQ wishes the Professor a speedy recovery.


  1. P.S. Despite his reservations about the new ANC Asmal has not thrown his lot in with the so-called 'Shikota' breakaway.

  2. Hi David
    I like your blogpost about Kader's lecture. One of the other interesting points that he made, if I understood it correctly, was his argument that governments in mature or maturing democracies, that are comfortable with their role and position, should not be afraid to hold commissions of inquiry - that to do so should be seen as a sign of strength rather than as one of weakness (this in the context of his support for a commission of inquiry into the arms deal). I would like to follow your blog and make a link to it on my own, which is broadly concerned with learning and social capital in South Africa -
    Thank you!

  3. Yes, that is why President Motlanthe's decision not to hold a commission of inquiry into the arms deal was so disappointing. Here was an opportunity to uncover the full implications of what happened there, but clearly the damage that it would cause to the ANC would be too much for the party to bear. Another instance of the party trumping the national interest I'm afraid.

    That said, Mbeki freely held commissions of inquiry, but the recommendations weren't always respected. Think of the Khamphephe commission and the Scorpions. You can hold all the commissions you want but how the outcome is dealt with is important too.

    I checked out your blog last night and I think it warrants an RSS feed on my Reader. I will look at it regualarly as it seems interesting. Thanks for the link love on your blogroll as well.

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