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Is ethics pivotal to transformation?

- Wits Communications

Professor Justice Dikgang Moseneke was a judge of other judges who spent 40 years testing ethics against normative behaviour.

Moseneke delivered the annual Steve Biko Bioethics Lecture in his capacity as Honorary Professor in the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits, on 9 September 2016.

“I direct my gratitude to the Steve Biko Foundation, which serves as the embodiment of my kindred spirit, Steve Bantu Biko,” began Moseneke.

The former Constitutional Court Judge discussed ethics in transformation within the framework of the South African constitution. He described it as “values drenched” and as “a basket of inter-related ethical norms.”

“From 1990 we wrote down, with remarkable clarity, our notion of a just society. It was meant to be a transformative constitution. Our constitution, as per Nelson Mandela, was one under which ‘never and never and never again will one person oppress another’,” he said.

Moseneke said transformation in socio-legal parlance is open-ended and that our constitution is normative. “It is meant to change our historical relation for greater social good. What are the ethical constraints on those who hold public power, including those who hold private power that is akin to public power?”

He suggested that what was omitted from our constitution was the social pact about how transformation would be brought about. “The law often floats on a seabed of morality,” he said.

Invoking ideas he shared with Biko and others during the “uncompromising conversation of liberation of the 1950s and 1960s”, Moseneke said two lessons had emerged: Firstly, oppressed people bear the responsibility to liberate themselves from colonial – and any – oppression.  

“Those who sit on the margins cannot outsource this task. The first step to autonomy is a free mind – the mind that fully recognizes and embraces the inherent humanity and dignity to which one is entitled. ‘Oppressed people require insight into their oppression’,” said Moseneke, quoting Biko.

The second lesson is that of individual and public agency. “In the Black Consciousness movement under Biko, remember how he got poor people to till their own back yard, grow their own food, make their own clothes, build – not destroy – local schools, and sanitise clinics,” said Moseneke. This was in recognition of the importance of public and private agency.

Moseneke listed the primary tenants of bioethics: Respect for autonomy (self-rule); non-maleficence (do no harm); beneficence (justice, fairness, equality, access to healthcare and equitable distribution of resources).

“These are widely recognized and contained in the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights,” he said. “Biko understood the ethic – and the ethics – of transformation.”