Earlier in May, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation's 11th SA Reconciliation Barometer was released. One of the main conclusions of the research was that income inequality now surpasses race as a dividing factor in South African society.
In fact, 32 percent of those surveyed believed that disparities in income keeps South Africans divided, as opposed to the 20 percent who saw race as the main divider.
This theme emerged strongly at the Second Annual Ethics Conference, held in Sandton late in May 2012.
"Speakers concluded that removing apartheid was our biggest achievement as a country, but identified the continued skewing of the economy as our biggest failure," noted Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA), to the conference organisers.
"Worryingly, there is a higher correlation between social unrest and income inequality than there is between social unrest and poverty. In other words, relative poverty rather than poverty per se is what heightens people's sense of injustice-and their desire to put things right. Thus, for example, the realisation that some people are getting better service delivery is more of a trigger for protests than lack of delivery in itself."
Addressing these inequalities is a moral imperative, delegates agreed. "Given that the current strategy is not delivering, it's clear we need to start a new set of conversations about how to create a society that is economically just," argues Professor Rossouw.
"That new strategy needs to confront, amongst other things, the problem of corruption, which we all saw as ultimately an assault on the poor."
Creating such an economy will ultimately depend not only on laws but on creating a culture where individuals and institutions take responsibility for their impact on society.
Law is not an effective way to change behaviour and attitudes, as black economic empowerment and affirmative action had shown. In fact, law can provide a smokescreen for unethical conduct. And example of this paradox is the use of luxury hotel accommodation by government functionaries, or the purchase of luxury cars. These expenses are justified by reference to the relevant regulations, but individuals have to look beyond the letter of the law to decide what is ethically appropriate in current South African society.
"It's part of taking responsibility for the impact you have on society either as a person or as an institution, and that cannot be legislated-it's a conviction that has to be developed," Professor Rossouw says. "We need to convince one another of our responsibility to act ethically."
Some delegates suggested that a core set of national ethical values should be developed-but again; this has to be something that has to be advocated rather than legislated. There was broad consensus that the concept of ethical behaviour has to be taught to children at school as part of a programme to create active, responsible citizens.
"EthicsSA wants to help facilitate the process of creating an 'ethics compact' across society as the necessary basis for creating an economically just society," Professor Rossouw concludes. "This is something we simply have to get right-failure will threaten all the gains we have made over the past 18 years.