Former Minister of Education and Water Affairs and Forestry Kader Asmal, delivered the Helen Joseph Memorial Lecture on 28 October 2008 at the University of Johannesburg. His lecture was entitled ‘Law, morality and ethics in public life in South Africa’.
His address came just days after former African National Congress (ANC) chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota wrote an open letter to the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, criticising the newly-elected leadership for forsaking values of the Freedom Charter.
Asmal’s address echoed Lekota’s view by emphasising the need for South Africa to revisit its views on the role of ethics and morality in public life, as the country approaches what he calls “an unprecedented level of upheaval” in the political landscape which offers both threats and opportunities.
He said one of reasons he resigned from his position in government was because he did not want to vote for the disbanding of the Scorpion. He criticised the decision to allow MPs who had been implicated in ‘Travelgate’ to vote on the legislation effectively disbanding the elite crime fighting unit.
“Is it right to take action against the very body that could have completed the investigations against you?” he asked.
Former Gauteng premier and volunteer-in-chief for the yet to be formally established breakaway party, Mbhazima Shilowa, has criticised ANC for lacking tolerance. Addressing a public debate at the University of Johannesburg in October, Shilowa urged South Africans to “shun and frown upon” those who create no-go areas for certain political parties.
In a similar vein, Asmal asked: “What values of ethical and principled conduct do we inculcate when under the guise of free speech we allow incitement to violence to remain largely unpunished and unbridled?”
“If not checked, this can develop into a culture that will assail our constitution, its founding provisions and its institutions,” he cautioned.
Asmal lambasted the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, for his 28 percent salary increase at a time when the South Africa is facing a “spiraling” inflation problem.
“… [T]he unethical conduct present in choosing to allow such an increase jeopardises the institution’s credibility, the policy’s authenticity and the stature of the man”, Asmal argued.
Commenting on the recent violence against foreign nationals, Asmal reiterated political analyst Stephen Friedman’s view that no one knows why the outburst took place. He proposed that government establish a commission of enquiry, whose existence would be to educate the communities about foreign nationals.
Asmal challenged South African universities to play a key role in inculcating the culture of encouraging student to play a key role in promoting ethics and morality in public life. This he said can be achieved by involving students in tackling public issues.
"We need to speak out, act and ensure that our own words and deeds contribute to the rejuvenation of the values of ethics and morality that propelled many of us to wage the struggle for our country’s liberation," he said.