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03/11/2017

This article was written by Charmain Naidoo on Business Day Live - 3 November 2017

'I’ve never forgotten that. It made such sense to me. It’s really the way we all ought to behave, no matter where we are'

I was sitting at the Radisson Blu in Port Elizabeth, in the dining room, waiting. It was one of those rare, languid PE days: hot, but cooled by a light breeze coming off the ocean – a gentle puff of air that brushed against the skin, a fleeting kiss.

I say rare because at this time of the year, the beginning of summer, it was unusual not to be holding onto the hem of one’s skirt to protect modesty in gusty PE.

The three previous days had been wind hell as flurries of fast moving air – wraiths – shrieked and howled and sighed and toppled, or tried to topple, everything in their paths.

The soughing unravels the mind, becomes a widows keening – a sound of mourning and grief that goes on and on assaulting the senses, and, ultimately, the soul, until you beg the Gods for relief.

And so, sitting in the Radisson Blu dining room with its view of the Indian Ocean on this rare and perfect day, waiting for Professor Derrick Swartz, vice chancellor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, NMMU, was pure pleasure.

As the editor of the Herald, I was meeting with the VC, whose appointment was months old, to ask him to write a column for paper.

I’d heard such good things about him, how he’d turned around Fort Hare by instilling an unparalleled culture of learning, that I’d wanted to meet him anyway.

I arrived early, to situate myself and run through facts that would make for a cogent argument for why he should write for the paper.

We needed an academic voice, I said when he arrived.

What I got was a firm no, but he imparted a snippet of wisdom that I have taken into all aspects of my life, both professional and personal.

I asked Professor Swartz what his plans were for NMMU, riven by racial difference and the tricky incorporation of disparate cultural groups into a single unit. There’d been some dissidence in the student body; not nearly as prevalent as on other campuses in the bigger cities – Wits in Johannesburg, the University of Cape Town, UOFs in Bloemfontein – but still of concern.

Professor Swartz shrugged. It’s not about race or difference, he said. It’s about behaviour. “I want students and lecturers and cleaners and service people to change their aspect and their attitude when they walk onto campus. Automatically. It must become part of their mien, habituated behaviour.”

I was confused. The professor began an explanation that I thought then, and still think now, was profound and applicable to all areas of life.

Think about reverential behaviour, he said - utterly respectful behaviour. Think where you experience such behaviour and why.

I was still confused.

When you enter a church or a temple or a mosque – any place of worship – your entire demeanour changes.

The very act of walking into a building of worship demands that you automatically drop your voice to a whisper, you bow your head; men take off caps and hats.

I heard a very wise young economist on radio talking about the disastrous consequences of just a single month without tax collection

Your attitude is respectful, deferential. Humble.

It’s the same when you enter a courtroom where a judge is presiding over a trial.

That, Professor Swartz said, was what he hoped he could instil in everyone who walked onto the NMMU campus: an attitude of respect for all views, opinions, colours, creeds, religions, sexual persuasions. An acceptance of the communally agreed to rules of behaviour.

I’ve never forgotten that. It made such sense to me. It’s really the way we all ought to behave, no matter where we are.

I grew up in an environment (encouraged mostly by my lovely dad, the headmaster) where there was great respect for teachers and the process of learning.

And so it made sense that we all walked into the classroom with the same sort of respect as congregants have walking into a place of worship.

Of course the context was different. We were allowed to engage in robust debate, and question our educators and we could laugh out loud and throw things (kindly) at each other when teachers were out of the classroom. All of it while being respectful and considerate of our fellow classmates and (I hate to use the term because it could sound prescriptive but can’t think of another way to put it) be law abiding; follow the rules.

It’s that leeway, those bendable but disciplined attitudes, that I would like to see practiced by us South Africans.

And of course conforming to communally agreed to rules.

It was with some concern that I heard radio chat show participants and commentators on social media and people in supermarket queues and treadmill walkers at the gym all talking about supporting a tax boycott.

We can use our hard won vote to change attitudes and behaviour in our country, we can use civil organisations to keep the bureaucrats in line

Yes our tax rands are being horribly misspent. Yes the money is not being used for the purpose it is intended – to support the poor, to maintain our infrastructure, to secure the future of our children and their children, to conserve our natural habitat…

But imagine if we stopped paying tax, even for a few months and Tom Moyane’s tax collection dropped to a lot more than the current shortfall of R50-odd-billion.

I heard a very wise young economist on radio talking about the disastrous consequences of just a single month without tax collection. The consequences will be unimaginable, and she quite accurately pointed out, we would never make up the shortfall, the country would never be able to make up what had not been paid into the tax coffers.

Professor Swartz’s hope for a change in behaviour is what we need, for everyone including politicians and policy makers and Tom Moyane – working together for the common good; respect for the poor and the rich and the young and old and employed and indigent.

And there’s no way we can achieve that at this stage in our country’s history by wilful civil disobedience. We’ve been down that road, we thought we’d won that battle.

There are other tools in our kit, very effective tools: We can use our hard won vote to change attitudes and behaviour in our country, we can use civil organisations to keep the bureaucrats in line.

Stopping paying our taxes is just shooting ourselves in the foot – with disastrous consequences that could set us back so far we would never recover.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777
Zandile.Mbabela@mandela.ac.za