This week I was standing at a queue in an ABSA branch in Walmer, Port Elizabeth and I overheard a lady client telling a teller that she wished that xenophobic attacks would break out in her community so that she would have an opportunity to loot whatever she wanted from shops owned by foreign nationals. When I confronted her about this she responded by saying she was joking.
I was obviously not amused and I wouldn’t think anyone would be in light of what has been happening in South Africa. This particular lady is employed and therefore could not use the argument that foreigners have deprived her of an opportunity to be gainfully employed. In the violence against foreign nationals we are sometimes told that these are the actions of criminal elements and should not be interpreted to mean that South Africans are xenophobic.
A strange characteristic in this violence is seeing ordinary South Africans helping themselves to goods looted from shops owned by foreigners. I have even seen elderly women part of the carnage. If these attacks are actions of a few criminal elements then why do people who consider themselves to be decent individuals also participate in them? What is strange is that the same criminals they are acting in concert with would not think twice about breaking into their homes or raping them.
As shocked as we are regarding the images of foreign nationals being violently attacked I do think that the problem is much deeper. We have simply lost our moral compass as a nation or we have too many people who are governed by moral relativism. Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.
Moral relativists believe in the idea that the end justifies the means and you see them in the following examples:
- The shutting down of the whole schooling system when teachers strike.
- The sabotaging of electricity by striking Johannesburg City Power employees.
- Nurses on strike turning away patients from public hospitals.
- Protestors destroying public property and stoning passing vehicles.
- Strikers threatening and even assaulting non-striking workers.
On the opposite side or moral relativism is moral absolutism which is the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. Christians are supposed to be governed by moral absolutes. In other words it is not the situation or circumstance that defines their moral standards but the Bible.
So before we wax lyrical about the shameful acts of those who hounded and killed African brothers and sisters let us evaluate our own daily actions. The people who attacked foreign nationals believe that there are social conditions that justify their actions. In other words they would argue that they did not act irrationally but have been provoked to do what they did. Well the same argument is applied by striking nurses, bus drivers who burn company vehicles, etc.
The same argument or idea of being provoked was favoured also by those who vandalised or defaced colonial era statues. Therefore those of us who claim to be decent people, how do we act in moments when we feel provoked? Are the attacks against foreign nationals therefore not a manifestation of a bigger problem? That when we are angry we feel justified to act in line with that anger?