Moral regeneration and changing people’s attitudes starts at the top

In Johannesburg, a top high school issues Muslim pupils with a concession pass that gives the girls permission to wear a headscarf with the school uniform.

This is necessary to maintain law and order, says the school, as in giving pupils permission to wear takkies for medical reasons.

In Pietermaritzburg, a white pupil shares on social media her anger with black pupils whom she claims cannot spell or pronounce her name; she dismisses them in voice notes with the racist “k” word.

In Durban, a top medical school discovers that parents were buying admission spots from a corrupt family.

What these three cases have in common – religious bigotry, racism and corruption – is of course the breakdown of values in our society.

Forget schools and universities, the values problem unmasked by these instances lie deep within our culture and in the everyday interactions between our people – Muslim and Christian, black and white, honest and corrupt.

These three cases are not only reminders of the fact that our social relationships in post-apartheid South Africa are still deeply troubled but also that they are hard to change.

To be able to give permission to devout Muslim girls to wear a scarf is to give yourself power you do not and should not have as a school authority; that is, the power to decide over another group’s religious dress. In this case, a public school that no doubt sees itself as Christian gives permission for deviation from the norm.

Such behaviour is not only discriminating towards fellow citizens; it is completely ungenerous as a Christian act.

It is truly astounding that a conservative legal body could opine that issuing the concession cards ensured compliance with a school rule.

This of course is the kind of legalistic nonsense that kept apartheid in place; you do not question the immorality of the rule, you pretend that the rule is for the good of the subjugated person. That public schools still behave in this way – and no doubt believe they did nothing wrong – says a lot about how much still needs to be done to ensure that truly democratic cultures take root in our schools.

The young girl in Pietermaritzburg did not learn those deeply hurtful words by accident. She is not ignorant; she came to be that way through the influence of others.

As a parent, I firmly believe that the most important foundations for learning anti-racist behaviours are laid in our homes.

Long before the child enters school she is privy to parental conversations, parental friendships and parental attitudes towards others – blacks or whites, Muslims or Jews, gay or straight persons etc.

Nor does it occur to her how African names are mangled all the time by non-native speakers of African languages.

All language, including hateful language, is learnt and learnt early in life. The young woman’s racist language was not something she felt ashamed of but rather private words she felt could be openly shared.

The Durban university can (and of course, should) set up elaborate rules to ensure that admission to medical school is fair, open and equitable but it will not stop corrupted and corruptible people from seeking shortcuts to entrance.

That is because of a value system on the part of so many parents that tells them that their child is special, exceptional and destined to be a doctor.

For the apparent prestige and status of being a doctor, some parents would literally do anything.

I know. A medical school dean had a thick roll of notes placed on his desk to persuade him to make a plan; the dean, an honest man, returned the wad of money with a warning.

A parent showed up with her daughter dressed in the skimpiest of clothing, apparently to persuade the male authority at another university to override the rules and accept her apparently gorgeous daughter; it was a short meeting as the couple were shown the door.

These kinds of stories are many and they make the stomach turn.

They cut across race and class and continue from one year to the next in each of the major medical schools of the country.

To change this behaviour we need to change the values of parents when it comes to the education of their children.

Here’s the rub. Changing the behaviour of citizens, especially in developing countries, depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the state.

Ask Nigerians. Values leadership is a top down phenomenon.

When powerful leaders act ethically and serve selflessly, the grounds are laid for moral regeneration – a programme once led by President Jacob Zuma.

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