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Isha Bekia

Compassion and resonsibility

Nov 22, 2011 | SA Media, SA's democracy


What will South Africa look like in 2030? The answer to this question has been the focus of the National Planning Commission under the leadership of Minister Trevor Manuel, as instructed by President Jacob Zuma. The National Planning Commission recently launched its vision for creating a vibrant South Africa for all its citizens by 2030. There is one value that can empower our country to translate this 2030 vision into reality: compassion.

Compassion is not just a feeling, but an action; it is not merely a state of mind, but a way of life. It is a fundamental value and is, in fact, one of the defining characteristics of G-d Himself. The Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 28:9) says, “You shall walk in His ways,” which the Talmud explains is a commandment to emulate G-d: “In the same way that He is compassionate so should you be.” The Talmud gives specific examples of actions to be emulated: the Bible describes how G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners and buries the dead, and therefore so should we do all these acts of loving kindness.

To live with compassion is to see human pain and be moved to action aimed at alleviating it. This value is crucial to building the kind of country we want. It imposes a duty on each and every South African to feel the pain of those who are in need, whether they are members of our families, communities, neighbourhoods—and to help wherever we can. But it also imposes a heavy moral duty on the South African government.

More than anything else, we need a “government of compassion.” A government of compassion will move heaven and earth to alleviate human suffering. A government of compassion does not take refuge in statistics; it operates by the Talmud’s principle that “to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world and that to save one life is to save an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). Every single person who suffers from disease, crime, poverty or lack of education is a national tragedy.
People who serve in a government of compassion do so with resolute dedication to urgently alleviate unbearable human suffering, and therefore have no time or inclination to pursue business opportunities for self-enrichment. A government of compassion is repulsed by corruption, incompetence and laziness because of the enormous suffering that these cause to millions of people. In this respect, we should commend President Jacob Zuma for boldly dismissing two cabinet ministers, suspending the Commissioner of Police and establishing a judicial enquiry into the Arms Deal. These are not only acts of integrity, but also of compassion; as the Talmud teaches, “whoever is compassionate to the cruel in the end will be cruel to the compassionate.” Misplaced compassion brings cruelty to the world. To have compassion on the corrupt and inept is to be cruel to the millions of vulnerable citizens who depend on those powers.

A compassionate government knows that the welfare of million South Africans depends on it for education, healthcare, safety, housing and so much else, and is therefore uncompromising in its pursuit of excellence, holding every cabinet minister and government employee accountable, from director-generals to school principals to police station commissioners; from traffic officers to home affairs officials to nurses to teachers.

The stakes are high. The success of our 2030 vision depends on compassion. So does the moral standing of our society. The Hebrew Bible (Exodus 22:22) says that when the powerless individual calls out for help G-d says, “I will surely hear his cry.” G-d sees “the tears of the oppressed with none to comfort them, and their oppressors have the power” (Ecclesiastes 4:1), and He is the “Father of orphans and Defender of widows” (Psalms 68:6). Our government, which we have elected to fulfil these responsibilities to the vulnerable, will ultimately stand before G-d in judgment of its performance. They must not fail.