Athol Williams, a senior lecturer specialising in corporate responsibility and ethical leadership at the University of Cape Townʼs (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB), reflects on the recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) three-day conference in Vienna, held under the banner “Education for Justice”.
Few will deny that we are facing a moral crisis in South Africa. To be fair, South African modern history is littered with moral crises, but this crisis is different. While lines of good and bad, right and wrong, were mostly clearly drawn in the past, these lines are now very murky. I find it increasingly hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in politics, business, law enforcement, the media, even in civil society. The ubiquitous fake news exacerbates this crisis.
What are we to do to arrest the seemingly endless [tearing apart] of our society’s moral fabric? Obviously, our criminal justice system has to do its job to hold perpetrators to account for their actions – no small feat given the scale and scope particularly of the corruption and violent crime that we are facing. But catching and punishing criminals is insufficient to stop crime, and certainly insufficient to overcome the moral crisis that we face where many forms of unethical behaviour have been normalised.
This crisis requires a major intervention across our society and requires building our moral fabric from the ground up. [It requires] de-normalising unethical behaviour and positively encouraging our citizens to live with respect for each other and to live by the rule of law. And education is the best place to start.
With South Africa’s challenges at the forefront of my mind, I recently attended a three-day conference in Vienna under the banner “Education for Justice”, run by the UNODC. The Education for Justice initiative, which ran from 7 to 9 October, seeks to prevent crime and promote a culture of lawfulness through education activities designed for primary, secondary and tertiary levels.
These activities help educators teach the next generation to better understand and address problems that can undermine the rule of law and encourage students to actively engage in their communities and future professions in this regard. Essentially, the design of values-based education.
“I searched, but could not find a representative from the South African government there.”
I was encouraged to encounter among the 250 attendees, ministers of education, justice and interior affairs, and other representatives from governments across the world, publicly expressing their commitment to infusing ethical components into their education systems and recounting examples where these have already been done. I searched, but could not find a representative from the South African government there.
The key lesson from the conference is that, ultimately, we need to infuse ethics into our curricula such that ethical considerations influence our thinking and decision-making across the board, rather than have dedicated ethics lessons.
This is a very long-term and lofty goal for us since few schools and universities in South Africa offer ethics or values-based courses at all, let alone infuse these ideas into the general curriculum. One example where this is happening is at youth literacy non-profit Read to Rise (that I chair) which infuses its reading-promotion programmes in schools with content that fosters respect, compassion, courage and friendship.
Public administration and business schools at universities, in particular, need a deep rethink of ethical content. Most schools don’t offer dedicated courses on ethical decision-making, which is a major oversight. But they need to go even further, to critically evaluating the decision frameworks and methodologies that are taught to public and business leaders – these often place no value on ethical considerations, favouring instead old, neoclassical cost-benefit analyses.
“For too long we have had the disease of immoral behaviour reach into every facet of our society and our lives.”
We need a deliberate effort to introduce students to the dilemmas they are sure to face, to challenge their intuitions and to offer tools that enable them to make decisions that advance justice, not only economic growth.
South Africa has reached a dangerous place in our history. For too long we have had the disease of immoral behaviour reach into every facet of our society and our lives. We need leaders to be good role models and we need swift action to be taken against those who undermine our society.
But the long-term hope of building a harmonious and prosperous society requires that we build an ethical base. This has to start with ethical content in our schools and universities. So while we’re decolonising our educational institutions and curricula, perhaps we can inject solid ethical content that will contribute to developing the ethical society we desire.
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