What should be the single priority for the new South African government? In his Sunday Times column (3 May 2009), Mac Maharaj invited readers to answer this question, following Peter Bruce’s observation that a government that tries to fix everything achieves nothing. “Let us… find some common purpose, which is the first step to success.”
But because any choice refers to a prior and more fundamental commitment – to the criteria by which we choose – it seems to me that clarity of purpose is at least as necessary as common purpose. What we believe the government’s priority should be depends on how we understand its purpose, and this in turn will shape the way it functions and is evaluated.
So here’s my response: the top priority for the new government, and all who sail in her, should be to keep one question in mind from the time they get up in the morning until the time they go to bed: what is the fundamental purpose of our government here and now – and what is my role within it?
This is not an abstract or technical question but an ethical one, whose shifting answer will always be reflected in the way we live. And it seems to me that present social conditions indicate an insufficient clarity of purpose in previous governments that has led to contradictory policies and administration.
I don’t believe the fundamental purpose of South Africa’s democratic government is to advance the interests of any group over another. I don’t think it exists to create personal fiefdoms for politicians and officials, nor to serve narrow private interests above the public good – although, clearly, there are many throughout the public and private sectors who believe differently. But none of these foundations could have motivated the broad social benefits that have been created since 1994. None can account for our aspirations and the decency of our democracy, which we witnessed again on voting day.
So let me whisper another possibility, one whose reflection can also be seen in the way we live: the purpose of this government, in this moment of South Africa’s democracy, is to respect and restore the dignity of people.
Dignity cannot directly be the state’s business; it’s not a technical, quantifiable matter. Our neighbours’ dignity is the responsibility of each one of us, and the state can’t take that over. But what our government can and should do – because this is the ethical origin of its power – is to put in place the conditions for a dignified life: work, health, shelter, education and the rest of it. This is the fundamental purpose that consequently calls for political choices, statecraft and the practical matters of governance. But getting these elements right must refer back to the quality of people’s lives. There is evidence that state services are more effective when “co-produced” with communities than simply “delivered”, but prior to this effectiveness is the dignity of people who are able to make meaningful decisions about their own lives.