An ethical barometer: Advocate George Bizos

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In 2015, George Bizos — veteran human rights lawyer who fought injustice in South Africa despite not being born here — spoke about ethics and the role of active citizenship at a Mail & Guardian and University of South Africa Critical Thinking Forum in Pretoria.

Bizos died on Wednesday at the age of 92. His legacy as a thought leader lives on in the words he shared. Below is an edited version of his speech.


In the midst of the tumult that is taking place in our country at the moment, it is truly a pleasure to take time to pause and reflect on matters that are important to us, and to think about what advancements we would most like to see in our country.  

The topic that I have been asked to speak on today is: “South Africa 20 years after democracy: what does our ethical barometer tell us?”

For me, in some ways I think that this question was perhaps easier to answer in the days of apartheid. The aim was clear; the struggle was simpler to conceptualise; and for the tens of thousands of women and men fighting to overthrow an unjust and oppressive regime, we knew in our hearts that what we were doing was right. However, having achieved the fundamental aims of the struggle, and with the advent of democracy and a democratically-elected government having been the reigning order for the past 20 years, the struggle has become far more nuanced, taking on different shapes in various sectors of society.

The xenophobic attacks that we have seen resuscitated recently have shocked many South Africans, me included, to our cores. It is unfathomable to me how, in a country that has worked so hard to overcome the hatred and indignity of the past, South Africans can show such unimaginable cruelty to our brothers and sisters from other parts of the continent. 

However, I think the word “xenophobia” is misplaced. This isn’t about fear of foreigners. This is far more malevolent than that: rather, we are dealing here with the hatred of foreigners — as the Greeks would call it, mísos gia tous xénous.

I know all too well what it means to be a foreigner, living in a place that is unfamiliar, speaking a language that is not your own, far away from your friends and loved ones. I came to this country as a refugee, as did members of my family. But fortunately for us, we were welcomed into this country — in school, university and professionally — and South Africa quickly became home to us.

During apartheid, our fellow African countries gave immense support to the resistance struggle, and South Africa has continued to court a philanthropic and mutually-beneficial relationship with our neighbours since the demise of apartheid.

But this has been placed in jeopardy by the behaviour of a small, unidentified group of dissidents who seek to incite poor and disadvantaged young people to commit unlawful and atrocious acts against their neighbours.

More than ever, we need an active citizenry to challenge the status quo and hold those with power to account. Irresponsible statements and actions from our leaders must not be countenanced.

President Mandela would have been ashamed of what we are seeing in the country today. However, even amidst the horrors of these attacks, we see glimmers of hope. We see people giving shelter and refuge to their neighbours; people assisting to set up temporary living quarters for those who have been displaced from their homes; and various organisations and individuals banding together in marches, vigils and social media to say no to the violence. 

I was particularly struck by a story I read in the media this week about residents in Alexandra taking it upon themselves to protect foreign shop owners because, as one local resident reportedly commented: “We live together and take them as our brothers … so I don’t see why that must change”.

The people standing up and speaking out against the violence, in some instances at possible risk to their own safety, do so for no other reason than because that is what their ethical barometer tells them is the right thing to do.

In preparing for today, I read several definitions of the meaning of the word ethics. In virtually all of them, whether in the context of philosophy or business, the meaning fundamentally boiled down to this: a set of moral principles that govern our behaviour. We derive our ethical barometers from various influences. It may be from religious teachings, people you respect, books you read, or from experiences of injustice that have compelled you to treat others differently. I suspect for most of us it is a confluence of factors. For me, I take guidance and solace from the Constitution; for me, the Constitution remains a beacon that offers a guide for the behaviour that is expected of us. And while offering us protection, the Constitution also expects a great deal from us — not just from the state, but from every individual in this country.

In our day to day lives, we will inevitably find ourselves grappling with questions of ethics; some answers are clear, but many are complex and multifaceted.

In many cases, not unlike a court, we have to balance competing interests that leave us uncertain about what the right thing may be. I believe that clarity sometimes comes with time and wisdom, but I also believe that the struggle in itself does not make you more or less ethical — it simply makes you human. It is a powerful thing to be able to reason and weigh up these competing interests in a critical way, one that must not be taken lightly.

Much has changed

I have sometimes encountered people who hold the view that nothing has changed — or at least that nothing has changed for the better. To my mind, it is not difficult to highlight the glaring flaws in this view. It will therefore come as no surprise to you that this is not a view that I hold. I am reminded of my Standard 8 Afrikaans teacher, a man named Meneer Scheepers. At the end of the war, after Germany had withdrawn from Greece, I recall him showing me photographs of emaciated children in Greece and saying to me: “Mr Bizos, I see that your brothers and sisters in Greece are starving”. 

I replied that my father was working and paying for food, and that I too hoped to contribute when I could. “Bizos”, he said snidely in response, “Not only do we feed you but we’ve also made you clever”. I didn’t know how to respond to that, but another boy in my class took it upon himself to stand up for me, saying to the teacher that he would report him to the headmaster if he did not apologise to me. I don’t know what gave him the courage in that moment to stand up to Meneer Scheepers for me, other than that was what that 16-year old boy believed was the right thing to do.

When we think about what has changed in our democratic era, one example that jumps to mind is that it seems to me that a forum such as this would never have been allowed to take place; critical thinking was certainly not something that was graciously welcomed by the apartheid state. We have also got to enjoy the benefits of living in a diverse and multicultural society. When I was a first-year law student, in a class of approximately 70 students, there were only four black students and only three women. In one of our first lectures, my professor in jurisprudence told us to look to our left and to our right. He then ominously remarked: “By the end of your studies, only one out of three of you will get a degree. And if you’re a woman, you might as well give up now.” I don’t think we even laughed; we may have smiled, but it didn’t seem that outrageous to us. And as it turned out, he wasn’t far from wrong.

Today, however, we see a different picture. I have spoken at many universities around the country and abroad, and I am always delighted to see a mix of races, men and women, of all different ages making up the student population. I am told that at Unisa, the number of female graduates has consistently exceeded the number of male graduates between 2009 and 2013, due to both higher enrolments and higher course and examination success rates being achieved by females. With regard to race, graduates at Unisa between 2009 and 2013 have been predominantly black, with an average year-on-year growth of 14.9%.

Need for open dialogue and strong leadership

Of course, transformation is about more than statistics, and questions of institutional transformation still need to be addressed. This has most recently been thrown into the spotlight by the “Rhodes must fall” movement at the University of Cape Town. As I have previously said, I may not agree with the approach of destroying statues of people who played a role in the history of our country, but I do agree that there is a need for an open and frank dialogue amongst the leaders of higher education institutions and their students about the institutional changes that need to be made.

I believe, however, that our ethical barometer tells us that it cannot be business as usual much longer. There is growing discontentment, and its manifestations are borne out of severe frustration and desperation. We simply cannot proceed to ignore the suffering of so many of our people that continues to take place well into our constitutional democracy. I agree with the Constitutional Court’s observation that the inherited injustices at the macro level will inevitably make it difficult to ensure present-day equity at the micro level. But that comment was made some 10 years ago, and the question now is whether we are doing enough to see equity at the micro level being achieved. And, if not, how do we change that?

I think this begins first and foremost with government. We, as a country, have been waiting for strong leadership to come to the fore and give us guidance in these difficult times. We are waiting for our leaders, in all levels of government, to tell us what plans are in place to effectively combat poverty and shortages in healthcare, housing, education — and then to implement these plans. We are waiting for our leaders to say that they will not stand for corruption and mismanagement, and that they will not tolerate irresponsible government actions any longer. We are waiting for our leaders to give us these reassurances, and then to make good on them. But we are still waiting.

It is unconscionable to me that levels of corruption remain as high as they do.

It sickens me to think of the billions of rands that have been lost to corruption and maladministration. It also seems to be that our anti-corruption and crime fighting units appear to be in a state of turmoil at present, and we have failed to create an environment where whistle-blowers feel that they are adequately protected in order to be able to come forward freely. It is at least encouraging to hear in the state of the nation address that there have been a number of convictions of members in the public sector who have been charged with corrupt activities, but there is so much more that can and needs to be done.

The challenge is not, however, for government alone. Business also has a role to play — not just in ensuring that they are not complicit in rights violations, but also in taking on an active role to see the realisation of rights. The corporate sector has a responsibility, I believe, to use the immense resources at its disposal to be an instrument of change for the better. It has a responsibility to its employees; it has a responsibility to the communities that are directly affected by its work; but I believe it also has a responsibility more broadly to South Africa to act ethically and proactively to assist the state to achieve the rights contained in our Constitution.

Active citizens

And then, of course, there is a role for each of us as individuals to play. More than ever, we need an active citizenry to challenge the status quo and hold those with power to account. Irresponsible statements and actions from our leaders must not be countenanced. We must act in accordance with our ethical barometers to expose wrongdoing, seek accountability, and play our part to help to make the lives of others in this country better.

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Some of you may be familiar with the words of the interim Constitution in the section dealing with national unity and reconciliation. It spoke of providing “a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence”, and the need for reconciliation and the reconstruction of society. It spoke of a need for understanding but not vengeance; a need for reparation but not retaliation; a need for ubuntu but not victimisation. Most importantly, it spoke about opening a new chapter in the history of our country.

I believe that given where we had come from and the uncertainty of the path that lay ahead, these ideals were a high watermark of our ethical barometer at the time. It was a commitment from South Africans to work towards healing the divisions of the past because we believed that it was ethically and morally the proper way forward. It is a commitment that I believe many of us still uphold, even in the face of other challenges that have come to the fore.  

We are so fortunate to live in the South Africa we do today. Twenty-odd years ago, a country like this was but a dream. Today, we enjoy a rights-based constitutional democracy premised on the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. We enjoy an independent judiciary, powerful guardians of the Constitution, strong education institutions, and a robust civil society, all of whom — together with so many others — strive on a daily basis to make this country better and achieve our constitutional ideals. We may want some of our institutions to work better, but I believe that they are working.

We have so much to be proud of in this country, and this is something that must not be forgotten or taken for granted. This must also not be enjoyed at the expense of others. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of the spirit of ubuntu. As our Constitutional Court has previously held: “The spirit of ubuntu, part of the deep cultural heritage of the majority of the population, suffuses the whole constitutional order. It combines individual rights with a communitarian philosophy. It is a unifying motif of the Bill of Rights, which is nothing if not a structured, institutionalised and operational declaration in our evolving new society of the need for human interdependence, respect and concern.”

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