By Zubeida Jaffer
What is happening in our country and in the world? Daily we are bombarded with shocking new revelations of misconduct of some politicians, civil servants and some business people.
Human civility, integrity and right action are flying out of the window. At the very moment when our natural resources are under threat, we read that the US President Donald Trump has withdrawn his country from the Paris Agreement that commits countries to work together to manage climate change.
Poor management of climate change internationally has contributed to us experiencing one of the worst droughts in the Western Cape in a hundred years. A year ago, we would not have imagined that we would cry and pray for rain.
We are crying too when we see our beautiful country gripped by incidents of horror and pain with women and children bearing the brunt. We watch how our political leaders are tearing us apart.
Our conversations continue to take place within narrow ideological frameworks.
We are stuck in the paradigms we have inherited: African Nationalism, Afrikaner Nationalism, English Liberalism, Socialism, and Capitalism. Yet no single ideology is providing us with easy answers. In fact, our party political system pits us against one another in a very ugly way. Instead of finding ways to cooperate to solve the huge challenges facing us, we prefer to score points and breakdown one another. More energy is going on fighting one another than solving the difficulties. And all the public can do is watch the mindless activity and see not one of our political leaders insisting on a different way forward. The system of governance in the world often does not represent real concerns of ordinary people but functions as a platform for powerful interest groups. While these realizations take hold and bring meaningful change, what can be done in the meantime?
While we perhaps do not have the power to easily stop wars or bombing in other parts of the world we do have the power to make a difference in the communities we live in and in our own country.
We cannot overlook wrong conduct. And we cannot only focus on a few people and harass them publicly. We also have to examine ourselves personally and the institutions that we are connected to. Are we wasting water? Are we doing back-door business? Are we aware of poor and corrupt practices in our organizations, in our companies, in our schools? Are we unkind to others? These practices will daily weaken our institutions and eventually wipe out all that we have worked so hard to build in our lifetime and in the new South Africa.
Nelson Mandela understood that the quality of life of our children would determine the quality of the society we are building. There are many institutions in our country that are set up to protect children. Besides the immediate family that is the most crucial, the police, the social workers, the courts, the religious bodies and the local neighborhood watches need to be mobilized to bring an end to violence against our children.
Often we complain but do nothing to improve the situation. Somehow we find it easier to blame than to combine with others and act to root out bad practices.
In Sura Ra’d in the Holy Quran, the injunction is clear:
“Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls).”
This does not only mean that we must combine with others to act. It means that we have to wrestle with ourselves at all times when we are tempted to do something unethical – we have to clear our negative impulses from our souls.
When I look back on the years of struggle in South Africa, I realize that one weakness was that while we emphasized collective action, there was not enough focus on transformation of the individual. We did not make this a crucial element of our struggle. Yes, there was talk about exemplary conduct but no deep reflection on whether each one of us made an effort to give effect to this. We were in resistance mode not in personal transformation mode.
We worked hard at showing the wrongs of apartheid and rightly so. It was assumed that those leading anti-apartheid activities were committed to right and ethical conduct. We assumed incorrectly and today see the results of not insisting on personal transformation of each and every person. Instead of resisting the habits of the old order, we have embraced some of the practices.
The Quranic quote above means we must also look inside our souls and work to cleanse it.
If we are horrified that children are being abused and killed, the first step is to stop our own abuse in our families. It is not in order for a man to beat his wife. It is not in order for anyone of us to make the lives of our families miserable. It is not acceptable to swear and shout and treat others unkindly. We do not have the right to hurt our children. These are the first steps to bigger abuses endured across our society.
Would it not help if we bring together faith institutions in every community and jointly commit to keep the focus on stopping all violence but specifically violence against women and children? Are our faith leaders speaking sternly about this and declaring such behavior as sinful? No. They are quiet and are often amused by the bullying behavior of some of their male congregants. Their failure to act makes them complicit.
When women go for help, they are sometimes told to be more regular with their prayer instead of finding the help to lay a charge of abuse against their husbands. The problem is placed back in the hands of the woman. And so she stands alone.
What about our school principals in every neighborhood? Do they ask their staff to repeat the message in classrooms that violence is unacceptable? And that violence against women and children is against the law of the country, the law of all religious faiths and every law of human decency.
What are the small things that we can do that will cumulatively bring bigger change? Practicing kindness will go some way towards reducing the levels of anger floating around and through us. Not flaunting wealth in the face of millions of unemployed compatriots could lessen tensions. Holding our tongues and finding words that will not inflict further wounds. It is not an easy time but each of us needs to start with the small steps of changing who we are and how we conduct ourselves. This is the central message of the month of Ramadan. We need to be the changed world we want to see.
Zubeida Jaffer is writer-in-residence at the University of the Free State. This article first appeared on her website www.zubeidajaffer.co.za.