Morality first

Mugabe Ratshikuni writes that a society that has no values will not produce much of value

This week I thought I would write an article on an issue that I have been thinking about for the last month or so, which is the importance of family and morality in ensuring and safe-guarding the economic well-being of a nation. A strong family unit and a focus on individual moral development is fundamentally important if a nation is going to develop and progress economically.

Often we look at the Newly Industrialised Countries of the Asian bloc and we marvel at their productivity and examine their economic policies in the hope that we can learn something that will help us in our quest for development and growth on the African continent, but we tend to overlook the core qualities that pervade these societies which have made industrialisation and modernisation a reality in these nations.

These are qualities such as: the strict and disciplined lifestyle of the average citizen in these nations, a culture that promotes and encourages disciplined family values and a strong work ethic that dominates society. These are the kinds of things which African nations have neglected to focus on, to their detriment, in the quest for economic growth and development.

Not only is the family the basic social unit, it is the most fundamental economic force in society, the key to work, consumption, savings, investment and the whole future thrust of any nation. As a consequence, the continued assault on traditional family values may well be more destructive to our economic well-being as a continent than any of our faulty fiscal and monetary policies.

In South Africa, the break-down of the traditional family unit has necessitated the creation of an unsustainable welfare state, with social grants and state-driven social programmes being used to meet socio-economic needs, that in a healthy society would have been addressed within the confines of the traditional family unit.

A renewed focus on building strong, productive family units is essential if the continent of Africa is going to meet its developmental objectives. The African concepts of Ujamaa (familyhood) and Harambee (pulling together) could be very important in this regard. To further highlight the importance of building strong, productive family units in the quest for economic growth, note how economists will use measures such as “household debt” and “household savings” etc. as macro measures to gauge the health of a country’s economy.

As Robert Kennedy so eloquently put it, “GNP (Gross National Product) measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play, it measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It pays no heed to the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worth living, and it can tell us everything about our country except those things that make us proud to be a part of it.”

As well as focussing on building strong, stable family units, African countries also need to promote and prioritise moral development if we want to see greater economic growth and development on the continent. This is especially significant because without a civilising force of universal moral standards, particularly values such as: honesty, trust, self-respect, integrity and loyalty, the market place quickly degenerates.

A society that has no values will not produce much value. A nation whose values are declining should not be surprised at a declining economy, because the market and the world of commerce are simply the expression of human evaluation, community and solidarity-people bringing talents and abilities to the service of others through exchange.

In Africa it is self-evident that because of our decline in values, our economies are paying an enormous price in terms of lost productivity and higher social costs. Corruption, greed, laziness, crime, violence etc. continue to prevent Africa from achieving its economic goals and unless we focus on individual moral development amongst our citizenry and leadership, we will keep falling short in this regard.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “a dollar is not value, but representative of value, and, at last, of moral values.” So right at the heart of all commercial activity is the issue of morality and values whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It takes serious self-discipline to contribute more than we take. Africa is filled with citizens and leaders who take more than they are willing to contribute.

The epidemic of crime in both offices and streets on the African continent, is far more indicative of our economic ills than we care to admit-not merely for the direct damage that is done to victims, but for what it says about the values and morals that are held and promoted across the continent.

In western countries there is growing interest in “subjective well-being.” Increased wealth has ceased to bring greater happiness; a wider set of concerns, including health and quality of personal relationships, contribute to subjective well-being at least as much as higher income does. There is only so much an economic system, or a set of economic policies can do for a society.

Economic policy frameworks and objectives can never be substitutes for higher cultural and moral commitments. We must permit freedom in the choice of buying and investing, and work on the spiritual and cultural level to inspire people toward reordering the conscience to take account of ethical ends. This is one of the keys to sustainable economic growth on the continent.

It is not enough to just educate our populace, to focus on developing core skills that are necessary for a thriving economy, without focussing on morality and moral development. The global economic crisis was a good example of what happens when highly skilled, highly competent, educated people are allowed to dictate the patterns and the trends of an economy, without any focus on morality and values. It was highly educated, competent people who put the world economy in a financial mess owing to greed, corruption and the pursuit of wealth at any cost.

This reminds one of the words uttered by the classical Greek philosopher, Socrates, “are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding the perfection of your soul?” It is the predominance of imperfect, undeveloped souls that is our greatest hindrance as a continent in terms of meeting our economic goals.

Africa needs a renewed focus on building strong, stable families and producing morally advanced citizens and leaders if we are going to see the continent achieve its growth and developmental objectives in the twenty first century. This is a strategic imperative for the future long-term economic good of the continent and its peoples.

We’ll let the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne have the final say in this regard, “to compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.