WE live in an age of overworked phrases. For a long while we were exhorted to level those uneven playing fields. Then the rainbow nation made its promising debut, only to be undermined by nepotism and corruption. Now we are apparently plagued by irretrievably broken down working relationships and people who allegedly bring institutions into disrepute.

This last example of clichéd thinking is simply a cover for censorship. Our old rulers did not bother with such subtleties, but indulged in the crude pleasures of the iron fist. Draconian laws using words like security, secrets and control littered the statute book. These worked up to a point, but irritatingly persistent lawyers and civil rights activists kept finding loopholes, so more direct methods were used. If detention without trial failed, a bullet or two through the window at two in the morning usually did the trick. Silence would descend, at least for a while. As we are constantly and correctly reminded, things are very different now.

But in 2007 academics at two universities, Fort Hare and KwaZulu-Natal, have been dismissed for allegedly bringing them into disrepute. In plain language these individuals have had the courage to voice what they regarded as the truth, a commodity that proved too embarrassing for those in charge. When things get this bad in universities, it is time to sound the alarm bells, for above all these are institutions that should thrive on, or certainly be able to absorb, dissent and criticism. If they cannot face up to robust analysis of their own internal deficiencies, how can they possibly exercise their dissenting and critical role in society at large?

The new pressures are insidious and based on forms of coercion designed to encourage self-censorship. Members of the public refrain from saying or writing what they believe for fear of being called racist; or even worse, liberal. Newspapers are constrained from publishing information in the public interest by court interdicts and those that upset powerful politicians have government advertising withheld. In institutions, constitutional rights to free speech are limited and those who speak out find themselves before disciplinary committees. The irony is that so many managers are all too capable of bringing about institutional disrepute without help from anyone else.

Here lies the key to the disrepute charge. Just as official secrets laws are designed to protect officials, not secrets, so disciplinary action against the outspoken is used to protect not just institutions, but those who claim to run them. The root cause of this is plain to see throughout our national life: people of ability and appropriate attitude are not being appointed to crucial positions. Instead, the politically connected and properly pigmented score the points that get the posts. Sooner or later the eventual fallout, lack of success and personal frustration, is plain for all to see; and the consequence is the persecution of its more blatant critics. Don’t delay; just shoot the messenger.

Nonetheless, the idea of disrepute does have its time and place and a clear demonstration of this was seen in Pietermaritzburg not so long ago. Some teachers shouted and screamed at children going to school and threatened colleagues and reporters exercising a constitutional right to go about their lawful business; a few teachers vandalised an examination venue; and the South African Democratic Teachers Union indulged in intimidating Stalinist rhetoric about re-education and union directives. No one dissociated themselves from this disgraceful display, not even other unions that favoured a more restrained and responsible approach to the public service strike. Pragmatic solidarity overcame any temptation to maintain professional standards. An institution vital to the country’s future, the teaching profession, was brought into profound disrepute.

Brave individuals, concerned about matters of principle, good governance, truth and constitutional rights, go through the stress of disciplinary action and lose their jobs, the scapegoats of the failures of others. Crowds of screaming, shouting strikers take to the streets, behave in totally unacceptable ways and face no consequences whatsoever. The last of the security guards charged with trashing central Cape Town last year recently walked away without punishment. Behind the scenes the institutionally powerful, from vice-chancellors to trade union leaders, manipulate the system to their own ends and trample underfoot the individuals who get in their way.

The big battalions are still on the march. Is this what the struggle was about? It should have paved the way for the development of a twenty-first century democracy that provides opportunity for anyone with intelligence, initiative, imagination and integrity. The alternative reality threatens the future of South Africa in a globalised world.

People in high places and positions of responsibility treat national institutions as their personal property and punish their critics. Members of professional unions put material interests ahead of their duty to behave responsibly in front of children who will use them as role models. This loss of institutional morality involves a slippery slope that is a great deal harder to climb than descend. Ground lost will not easily be regained. It is a popular and accurate belief that South Africa suffers from a gross failure by political leaders. But it is even more depressing to realise that leadership is also found wanting in so many other areas of society.

This article was first published in The Witness on 30 October 2007 and entitled ‘Down the slippery slope of moral decline’