THERE I was in the cosy environs of Sandton having lunch with colleagues and members of the law firm that represents our paper.

Discussions flowed from one story to the other, settling at some point with me declaring that a friend of mine was in prison awaiting trial.

"Ah, the editor of Sowetan has a friend who is a criminal?" came a response from one of us around the table.

Anyone who has grown up in a township would know how easy it is to have a friend "who is a criminal" or, as in my friend's case, who is awaiting trial.

This discussion returned to me on reading in the Sunday Times that President Jacob Zuma wants to start a national conversation into what constitutes our common morals and nationhood.

Why is it that some would doubt my personal integrity simply because I call a man who is in jail my friend? It is silly to assume that I condone crime because I refuse to disown a friend who is now in trouble with the law.

He is not the first friend I have had who is in trouble with the law.

I have had others before him and have close relatives who are behind bars after having been convicted of crimes against society.

I am not unique. There are many of us, especially those raised in the townships, who would, like a former police commissioner, say that a man society regards as evil is their "friend, finish and klaar".

Lack of appreciation for why I would go on record and say what I have said, speaks to the different attitudes we have as society to what we have set to be wrong or right.

Those who feel I should be ashamed of this state of affairs may be well meaning, but it is important that they be alive to the reality that they too are responding to their social conditioning.

I often wonder why it is that some white people keep calling blacks baboons and monkeys. Should they not know by now that black people find such names offensive?

For some, that I ask the question means I want to justify the acts of racists.

What more could there be to why some people refer to others as primates?

These simplistic responses pretend that we have always had a common nationhood when we have not and are still struggling to forge one.

That is why Zuma has a point when he asks whether we know each other enough as South Africans to understand why we act in a manner that we do towards each other and arrive at the moral judgments we do.

Sure, Zuma starts off on a terribly compromised footing. It is already a national value that once we are married, we should only have children with our spouses.

Others may argue that values and morals should be instilled at home and, therefore, any national debate on these is pointless if we raise our children allowing them to get away with anything, from bullying others at school to buying them expensive computer games each time they demand it.

But that does not change the fact that being a historically divided society that we are, we often arrive at judgments that affect all of society, using nothing but our own narrow backgrounds of race, class, rural-urban divide and even tribe, as reference points. Only the mischievous would refuse to admit that issues that matter to the chattering classes tend to matter to the rest of society. Their values become our values regardless of whether we too part in their drafting or if they may resembleour lived reality.

Zuma's call is therefore necessary and timely, even for him.

If we had a common set of national values, Zuma himself could not have employed the rather hollow defence of culture to try to explain his latest sex scandal on his being a man from rural KwaZulu-Natal.

He would have appreciated that regardless of how you settled matters in the grazing fields of Nkandla, your penchant for beating up homosexuals is not something you proudly declare in a South Africa whose values include opposing all forms of bigotry including those of sexual orientation.

If we had common national values that condemn crass materialism and crony capitalism, maybe Zuma would have told Julius Malema and his merry band that the point is not so much that he is "an African child" whose got a Mercedes-Benz but rather that, people should be seen to have toiled for what they own and not used or perceived to have used their political connectivity to amass instant wealth.

It will be tempting to dismiss Zuma based on what we already know about him. But it will be myopic.

You do not have to like him or his politics to appreciate that the need for this national dialogue is bigger than the man who is calling it.

Once established, these values will outlive all of us.

They will also help tackle the much avoided national question that will have to be met head-on if we are indeed to live up to the constitutional imperative to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights".