Student protesters hurl rocks at security guards. Picture: REUTERS, SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Student protesters hurl rocks at security guards. Picture: REUTERS, SIPHIWE SIBEKO

We tend to estimate the direction of the country based on daily headlines. The staggering arrogance of Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The shocking decline of Springbok rugby. The appalling performance of primary school pupils in science and mathematics when compared to other countries.

Those headlines come and go as our attention moves on to the next set of jaw-dropping world events such as the coming of Donald Trump in the US or the loss of lives in Aleppo, Syria.

When the public mind lives off adrenaline-rushing headlines, we often miss something important that changes deep within a national culture; something not fleeting but a long-term alteration in the value system of the society.

Bad behaviour or wrong decisions come and go. But what happens when a culture changes?

The year 2016 will prove to be a turning point in our national culture. For one, the culture of impunity is now firmly entrenched. Whether it is the president of the republic or a senior executive manager of the SABC, it is now completely acceptable to show your middle finger at policy and the law.

Whereas decisions in our early democracy were more often based on principle and leaders in government were inclined to accept the rulings of the court, we are now in a situation where Chapter 9 institutions are undermined and a judge’s rulings ignored. This is no longer the reckless behaviour of one or two strongmen; it has become the modus operandi of the powerful.

Another culture shift that has shaken the ground under us has to do with changing attitudes among many students towards public universities. Whereas before universities were treasured as engines of economic growth and gateways for social mobility,
they are now seen as little more than welfare organisations representing an extension of the duty of the state to care for the poor. The notion of a university as a site of excellence for research and a competitive space in the global economy of higher education has been reduced to one of low-quality production machines that churn out semi-literate graduates.

It is now acceptable for students to publicly abuse university leaders, who are seen as little different from municipal managers, the institutional face of the welfare state. And if the militant minority does not get its way, well then, incinerate libraries or computer centres or lecture rooms. These are no longer sporadic events; such behaviour represents the new normal. Plans are already under way for the 2017 disruptions. Our universities will never be the same.

The acceptance of the lowest standards for learning attainment is now settled in South African academic culture. Without much fanfare, a directive was issued that allowed pupils to pass with a minimum of 20% in mathematics.

Think about this. Critics used to rail against the Department of Basic Education for the 30% and 40% pass rates; now it is 20%. Do not for one moment believe this is a “temporary measure”. Oh no, this kind of thinking has become institutionalised.

Having given up on fixing the chronic problems of scholastic performance at the input end of the education chain, officials try to compensate for system failure at the output end. In other words, if you cannot increase marks, drop pass rates. There were no public protests on the streets. A brief outcry for a day or two, and then everything settled down as before. We have got so used to grovelling in the mud of low expectations that we start to speak well of the mud.

Negative culture change does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process that settles in over time. A nation does not leap into cultural recidivism; it slides into it, often unnoticed. Negative change in culture happens when we accept and even approve of the bad behaviour — note the number of prominent people, including academics, who approve of the destructive behaviour of militant university students — until it is too late to alter course.

The courts can make a judgment, but those decisions do not alter a culture in which leaders act with impunity. And such negative change happens when the truth no longer matters in this post-factual world; without blinking, a senior politician just told an informed public that 2016 was a good year for the relationship between parliament and the executive.

The good news is that ordinary people and extraordinary leaders can reverse such slippage if we take time to peek beneath the transient headlines.

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