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Don't confuse the law with morality

By Smangaliso Mkhatshwa | 2015-06-06 01:03:15.0

Morality cannot be left to the whims of individuals. Some values need to be protected or upheld at all costs, all the time.

The Moral Regeneration Movement supports Professor David Kelly's definition when he says: "Morals are beliefs people have about right and wrong; good and bad; their aspirations for their lives; the virtues they practice and vices they denounce; the responsibilities and obligations they accept; the things they feel entitled to; the standards that govern their sense of fair play; the ideals that shape their sense of what is worthy."

The controversy around the Sexual Offences Amendment Act is reminiscent of the furore that was sparked off by the Termination of Pregnancy Act. Many reacted spasmodically without even reading the Bill or Act in question. They simply based their arguments for or against on what media commentators of the day espoused.

Others argued like disembodied intellectuals. The confusion filtered down to ordinary people. Emotional outbursts did not help to promote healthy dialogue.

Many members of parliament voted according to official party position and a free vote was disallowed. It can be safely assumed that people did not bother to carefully study the Bill and its possible effects on civil society.

It is unfortunate that many people are "debating" the present Bill from their hearts. Others are countering with arguments from their heads.

We need a combination of the two. This would translate into making a case for a balance between the law and the wellbeing of society and its formative values. Sanctimonious condemnation of the Bill won't help.

The complexities of interpreting the law do not always allow the judge to enjoy dreamless nights. Consider Judge X who is happily married and is blessed with four lovely children - two boys and two girls, and he might have even adopted another two orphans. Their ages range from 12 to 16 years of age. They are at school and doing very well.

Imagine the same judge returning home after approving a controversial Sexual Offences Amendment Act. As he arrives home, he is met with great excitement and confusion because the kids have just read that they are now at liberty to freely enjoy sex with their peers as long as they give their consent.

In their minds, this seems to contradict what their family has always taught them - self-discipline, focus on their studies, avoid sexual relationships until they are ready to marry or be married, or even after they've graduated from university.

Their dad and mom had dutifully reinforced the Ten Commandments and the teaching of the church and so on. In response, the learned judge sits his kids down.

"Listen, here," he fumes. "I am now speaking to you as members of the Mojapelo family.


"Whatever the judiciary has decided, this Mojapelo house will stick to its traditions. Nowhere does our constitution encourage us to reject our centuries-old history and culture. All I did today was to inform Parliament that the amendment complies with the constitution. I will not even vote for or against when parliament debates the issues."

In the heat of the debate about the Sexual Offences Amendment Bill, people confuse two things. What the Bill is seeking to regulate is the constitutional right of consenting teenagers to have sex without falling foul of the law or risking arrest or prosecution.

The Bill does not encourage teenagers to engage in promiscuous sexual relations that often result in tragic consequences.

Unfortunately, when parliament passes legislation, ordinary people interpret that to mean that the government is actively encouraging promiscuity and patriarchy.

This leads us to the often difficult distinction to make. Legislation does not exonerate parents, neighbourhoods and civil society organisation from exercising their responsibilities about how to bring up and nurture young people in a permissive society such as ours.

A meaningful debate is one that draws a distinction between two imperatives. While certain actions might be legally permissible; the same actions may be morally reprehensible.

For example, every weekend we read about the number of divorces and disastrous sexual relationships involving adults. Why should we as society suddenly expect that inexperienced youths can be trusted to handle sexual relations responsibly without parental guidance?

In many African communities the family infrastructure has virtually collapsed. At the best of times the behaviour of youngsters is influenced by so-called celebrities, political leaders, professionals and sports personalities.

South Africa is striving hard to identify an ideal leadership for the future. We are unlikely to find that kind of leadership among the youth who have no self-discipline or vision for the future.

Whether or not the Bill is approved, civil society has the duty to uphold and instil the values that reinforce the centrality of the family, neighbourhood, the church, school and community organisations.

lMkhatshwa is chairman of the Moral Regeneration Movement