More than ever before, South Africa needs moral heroes

Thought piece – Dr Paul Vorster

Mass lootings, violence, political destabilization, and anarchy. You would be forgiven for believing that this must be some other war-torn country we all read about or see in the news. But you would be mistaken. This is the description of our home, South Africa.

Communities are shaken by the extent and scope of the looting and lawlessness that started in KwaZulu Natal and then escalated quickly to the Gauteng Province. As the situation currently stands more than 1700 looters have been arrested, soldiers are being deployed (and called up), and we are heading for even more restrictions on our freedoms. As if COVID was not enough to contend with we now have the very real possibility of food, fuel, and medicine shortages. This can only exacerbate the pressure on an already buckling public health sector.

Of course, this does not include the people who lost their lives and the countless who were injured as communities suddenly turned on one another.

And yet, South Africa has moral heroes. People who are willing to stand up in times of adversity and try to make things better. When a mother is blindly able to trust the reliable and capable hands of strangers to catch her child as she escapes a looted and burning building, we start to see a metaphor arise from the ashes of South Africa. Is South Africa baby Melokuhle? Falling from ruin into the capable hands of good and reliable citizens willing to clean up the mess, rebuild, and create law and order. Should we not be proud of the heroic deeds done by so many people during one of the darkest periods of South African history?

It is easy to lose trust in South Africa and its people. That distrust becomes even more salient and harmful when it happens within and amongst a country’s citizenry. Philip Zimbardo, a famous social psychologist dedicated most of his career to understanding the nature of evil. Zimbardo realised that there are not a few bad apples that cause all the trouble, but rather than any of us can be capable of terrible and evil deeds. It is the dark con of humanity that we are both beautiful and terrible at the same time.

However, Zimbardo also realised that although humanity may fall victim to blind obedience to authority, social conformity, and apathy, we also have the capability of rising above this tendency. Those among us are heroes, people who are willing to do what is right, even if that comes at a great cost to them personally.

Let me give an example of a hero. Dr Suhayl Essa was already battling against COVID at a Hillbrow clinic when the looting started. Then while being looted and fearing for their safety the trauma patients started coming in. Did Dr Essa run? No, he stayed and worked an 18-hour shift helping patients while fearing for his safety and the safety of other healthcare workers. He helped the very people who threatened him.

Then there is the Tembisa community who used their very bodies to protect their mall from looting. Think about this, random community members willing to give up their physical safety and integrity to protect their local mall.

Although Zimbardo understood that heroes do exist, he also realised something unexpected. Anyone can be a hero. While trying to profile people who engage in moral courage and heroism Zimbardo could find only one constant. These heroes were normal run of the mill people. They were not special, weird, or rare. Rather everyone has the capacity to be a moral hero. The question of whether someone will act as one usually only arises in moments of adversity. In other words, moral courage and heroism need an additional ingredient, adversity.

It is, therefore, more important than ever that we as South Africans transcend our tendency for evil and engage our tendency for good. This is the only thing that can save us.  As baby Melokuhle falls, her mother trusts that she will fall into the capable hands of her fellow South Africans.

Paul circle

Dr Paul Vorster is a Senior Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute and co-author of the Ethics Ambassador Handbook