Is South Africa more prone to corruption than other countries? This emotive question is the subtext of many lively and, at times, acrimonious debates surrounding the Protection of Information Bill that has come before Parliament. The crux of this debate is: should the legislation protect the security of government and state institutions, or should it protect the media and other public voices which seek to uncover corruption? How do we balance these interests? Or put another way: how afraid should we be of corruption?
Let’s look at this from a different perspective. “Do not commit adultery” is one of the famous Ten Commandments. What is less known is how Judaism protects this commandment; Jewish religious law says that not only is the actual act of adultery prohibited but so is anything which may lead to it. The commandments need protection, or, more accurately, we human beings need protection from ourselves. Thus, Jewish law prohibits a man and woman other than immediate next of kin (eg. spouse, siblings and parents) from being alone together in a room to which nobody else has access. In Hebrew this is called the law of yichud, meaning “seclusion.” A practical application of this is if a man and a woman are staying late at the office and everyone else has gone home, it is regarded as a temptation to commit adultery and must be avoided. Adultery is the betrayal of shared intimacy; Jewish law recognises that this can manifest in or result from even flirtatious speech or actions, and therefore instituted safeguards. Thus, Judaism also requires modesty in dress as well as in the way men and women speak to one another.
What is the rationale behind these protective measures? G-d created human beings with free will; we have within us the desire to do good as well as the desire to do bad. There is a constant struggle within each of us between walking the path of goodness, morality and decency, and betraying these values. There are many temptations that have the power to lure us away from the right path. Judaism teaches that we need to create a morally safe environment; this is achieved by taking precautions to prevent situations of temptation from arising.
There are many other examples in Jewish law. The Talmud and Code of Jewish Law give a number of instructions when it comes to charity collections. Two motivations are given for these laws: one is to prevent corruption, and the other is to prevent the appearance of corruption, as the verse states, “You shall be clean before G-d and Israel” (Numbers 32:22). For example, the law states that two people should collect charity money together and not separate from one another, as this might lead to theft of public funds or the appearance thereof. Another example: the managers of a soup kitchen which has surplus food must sell the food and use the money for the benefit of the poor. They may only sell it to other people and not to themselves so as to prevent the abuse of power. The Code of Jewish Law requires that after money is collected for public use, a full account of how much money was raised and how it was used must be made available to the public. This is based on the Talmud which points to the precedent Moses set, as recorded in the Book of Exodus: Moses collected gold, silver and other valuable items for the purpose of constructing the Tabernacle. Upon completion of the project he gave the people a full account as to how much was collected and how exactly it was used. In Temple times, the priests who handled donated money were not allowed to wear clothing with pockets, or even shoes, in order to prevent theft, or even the suspicion of it.
What does all this have to do with South Africa today? We have a duty to create a morally safe society which protects against corruption and wrongdoing, not because we are more corrupt than other countries, but rather because we, like all other human beings, are prone to the temptation of doing wrong. Therefore, on the issue of the Protection of Information Bill, we should err on the side of caution: it must be written in a way that protects against corruption, and against the appearance of it. This means that the power to uncover corruption must be strengthened as much as possible. For example, the debates around the “public interest” clause can easily be resolved by including it in the proposed legislation so that journalists and whistle-blowers can be protected when uncovering corruption, creating a greater deterrence against corruption and making for a morally safer society.
This is not different from applying safety measures to protect against physical dangers. “You shall build a railing on the roof of your house and do not place blood in your house,” says the Bible (Deuteronomy, 22:8). The purpose of a railing is to prevent accidents from happening; a modern-day application is a pool fence. If we have precautions and safety measures to prevent physical accidents – such as the many traffic laws – surely we need precautions and safety measures to prevent moral accidents. Consequently, we should build our South African society with the view of making it as safe as possible, physically and morally. All of the institutions of our country which guard against abuse of power need to be strengthened: the independence of the judiciary, the oversight capacity of Parliament, the freedom of the media and the vibrancy of multi-party democracy, because these institutions create a safer society for us all. The more checks and balances, the more safeguards, the safer and more ethical will our society be.
Corruption destroys the capacity of the State to deliver basic services to the most vulnerable members of society. Only upon sound, ethical foundations will we be able to build a truly great country. Only by ensuring the proper governance of South Africa will all its citizens live in a prosperous, equitable society in which human suffering is alleviated and in which all have the opportunity to fulfil their dreams.
The debate around the Protection of Information Bill is, therefore, crucial to the question of who we are and what kind of society we want to build: ethically safer or more dangerous? The answer is obvious.