Some call it desperation. Others see it as inspiration.
But South Africa is pushing ahead with its latest initiative to combat soaring crime and corruption: a nationwide crusade to build up its citizenry's moral fiber.
"Many of our socioeconomic problems result to a large extent from moral degeneration," Deputy President Jacob Zuma told Parliament last week. "There was a time in our history when people would provide guidance to children they did not even know, when the ruling ethic was 'Any child is my child.' We need to revive that spirit."
While character and integrity are familiar topics in US politics, the ambition of institutionalizing and popularizing ethical behavior is unprecedented in South Africa. The crusade appears to be a recognition that solving the crime problem here will require more fundamental changes than investing in better law enforcement. The aim is to steep all South Africans in the ethics of responsibility, self-reliance, and accountability to create a patriotic environment in which criminal behavior is not tolerated. The campaign is one of the first recommendations from the government's newly created Moral Regeneration Committee, established by President Thabo Mbeki.
In a report released in July, the committee said that laws in South Africa were sufficient, but that they were often either ignored or not implemented - because of government incompetence and ordinary South Africans' compromised moral state.
The blame for this lies with the country's former apartheid government, Zuma told Parliament, in his speech kicking off the campaign.
"Apartheid created a particular value system designed to deepen and perpetuate a twisted understanding of values and morality," Zuma said. "It introduced extreme intolerance, and because it had to be maintained through extreme violence, it encouraged violence at every level of society."
This comes at a time when South Africans are increasingly impatient with a government that appears unable to tame a soaring crime rate, create jobs or stamp out corruption. Figures released last month show that crimes against children and assaults have doubled since the end of apartheid's white minority rule, six years ago. Corruption within government is also seen as pervasive. A survey earlier this year found that about 50 percent of South Africans think that "most" or "almost all" government officials are involved in corruption. Newspapers here support that perception with daily accounts of dereliction of duty.
But rather than reinvigorate public support of government efforts, the campaign seems to have confirmed some citizens' suspicions that the government here is ineffectual.
"I think our biggest problem isn't morality. It is education and poverty," says Clement Mushwana, a baby-faced 26-year-old who is attending classes on weekends to complete his high school diploma, while working during the week to support his parents and younger brother. "People will act better if they have jobs and they aren't hungry."
A letter to the editor in the Citizen newspaper last week explained, "Urging the country to pull up its moral socks has a hollow ring about it, representing the desperate cries of politicians who have run out of answers."
Some political observers agree, calling the crusade an alarming retreat from the black government's traditional can-do approach.
"These are vacuous statements, surprising from a party that has never before hesitated to tackle a problem," says Tom Lodge, a professor of politics at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.
Deputy Education Minister Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, who is spearheading the campaign, counters that it was an ambitious effort by the government to battle evil forces that had taken control of South African society.
"We're trying to arrest further decay," says the Reverend Mkhatshwa, a Roman Catholic priest. "If we allow this moral degeneration to continue, it will threaten our democracy."
"The fact of the matter is," he continues. "though the criminals in South Africa are in minority, they are better organized than the rest of us.... We must fight them with all the means at our disposal."
The campaign will include programs in school, efforts by businesses to curb corruption, and support from the entertainment industry, the local media, and of course, of local churches.
In South Africa, where the state partially funds religious schools, such proposals are not as controversial as they have been in the United States, where calls for moral education in schools have been met with questions like, "Whose morals should we teach?"
Mkhatshwa explains: "We are not calling on people to be more religious. We are calling on people to be more spiritual, ethical, moral."
In other words, says Mkhatshwa, don't murder, don't steal, don't accept bribes. This morality campaign, the AIDS epidemic notwithstanding, is about the basics: Follow the law.
Already, some provincial officials have taken up the call. Last week, Free State Premier Winkie Direko asked church leaders to lead the effort, which she said, would leave the province free of crime and violence. Ms. Direko was quoted as saying, "We have a democratic country now, but what is democracy when the morals of society are what they are today?"
Free State religious leaders have announced a provincial day of prayer Dec. 3, to be followed by a gathering of religious leaders next year to draw up a plan of action.
"Who knows?" asks John Ndlovu, a taxi driver in Johannesburg. "Maybe it will bring the country together and make people nicer. We are still not trusting each other in this country. The government can promise this, but they promise many things, and they don't ever do it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society