Morality is key virtue for leaders

Jo Mdhlela

Jo Mdhlela

Should we as South Africans worry overly about how public figures conduct themselves - both in private and public life? Is it possible to separate the realm of private life from that of public?

Recently, controversy and negative press raged about President Kgalema Motlanthe's private life, and the alleged relationship he was supposed to have had with a young woman, and claims that he was responsible for the young woman's pregnancy. Of course, in the end all this proved false, and that the media had erroneously implicated the President.

But that is not the point. The point is: why did the media take so much interest in the story, even if it proved to be a fabrication?

It is said that public figures who engage in sexual activities outside marriage expose themselves to public scrutiny and the glare of the media. The question, though, is: why should we make it our business as private citizens to know what public figures do with their lives in the sanctuary of their private homes? Is that in the name of public interest, or is it because we are Peeping Toms?

It is also said public figures who engage in nefarious business transactions and financial scandals with the underworld will sooner or later be exposed. Julian Baggini writes in his book, Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines:"Newspapers love nothing more than exposing a public figure with their trousers down, hands in the till, nose in the powder, or preferably all three."

The president of one of the most powerful countries in the world, Bill Clinton, endured a gruelling time warding off a curious world and the media as a result of his intimate and improper relationship with a young intern, Monica Lewinsky. Then it is easy to see why Motlanthe's story captured so much interest.

Was it proper for the media to chase after Clinton, and by extension, probe Motlanthe or Jacob Zuma? Are they not entitled to their private life without ever bothering about the evercurious characters lurking in the shadows of their private lives?

The first thing to consider is that private and public life are hard to separate, and that whether we are private or public citizens, the world expects us to behave in a morally upright way. The responsibility is more pronounced when we hold public office. There can be no escaping the fact that while part of our life is of a private nature and the other of public interest, the world will be more interested to know more about me as a public figure than it would with a private citizen.

What does this tell us: In the words of philosopher Hartmann, we all have to become just and virtuous for "we learn the virtues by doing them, we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts".

It does not serve a useful purpose of public figures to complain that their private lives are put under spotlight by the media.

l Father Mdhlela is an Anglican priest and an ethicist with a Masters degree from the University of Leeds in the UK