In search of the 'ethical virus'

Father Simangaliso Mkhatshwa, Janine Hills, Rabbi Gideon Pogrund and Terry Booysen consider the topic of ethics. (Photos: Madelene Cronjé)

Father Simangaliso Mkhatshwa, Janine Hills, Rabbi Gideon Pogrund and Terry Booysen consider the topic of ethics. (Photos: Madelene Cronjé)

This was the comment put to panellists by programme director Professor Divya Singh: vice-principal of Unisa’s Advisory and Assurance Services, who opened the Unisa-Mail & Guardian critical thinking forum on ethical leadership.

Programme director Professor Divya Singh

Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, chairperson of the Moral Regeneration Movement and former executive mayor of the City of Tshwane, was asked to comment first. He said: “There are so many interpretations of ethics and these need to be explained in context.

“Ethical leaders make decisions ethically and can be seen leading in a way of transparency. The practical application of ethical and moral leadership surrounds their roles and responsibilities in a social environment and in the real world, reflecting the character of a leader.

“In recent times, thousands of citizens are asking where our leaders are. Finding ourselves in this situation means there is a need for radical changes in terms of leadership. The Sowetan newspaper has said that in the end, South Africa will be saved by people with a deep sense of patriotism and love of their country.”

Extreme sacrifices

Mkhatshwa quoted from a speech by Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity. Salim said the changing leadership paradigm means leadership has become more significant, and that “through the eyes of the freedom generation of African leadership, we should also see how the power of an inspiring vision, deep sense of mission, profound commitment, selflessness and readiness to make extreme sacrifices can overcome even the most unbearable challenges that may embrace the continent, at any moment in its history”.

Salim also said that practical experience has already demonstrated that where there is a responsible, accountable and incorruptible leadership abiding by the principles of good governance, these countries have made enormous progress in socioeconomic development.

“Even honourable people are not saints,” said Father Mkhatshwa. “Morals are the ideals that shape the leader and ethics are the discipline by which we determine values. These we can choose freely in a way, either rightly or wrongly. Regardless, leaders play a critical role in influencing others.”

“We are undoubtedly heading towards disruptables,” said Janine Hills, chief executive and founder of Vuma Reputation Management. “If we look at Istanbul, we live in a disruptive world that we must view in perspective.

“There are many discrepancies in South Africa and we must determine what we stand for. There is a lot of positivity in South Africa and there are people who stand up for what they believe in.

“There is a segment of our society that is making serious mistakes and there are segments where the rest of us must be able to be heard.

“I look at comparative research every day and in South Africa, we do carry our brand across borders. It is time to protect and grow our country, as we should.

”If we look at the propaganda across the world, while it is expensive, we clearly as a nation can use social media to spread a positive word. Yes, we have gone through turmoil, but we must continue to spread good news together.

“Generally South Africa ranks positively in global surveys and is usually between 29 and 39 across 160 countries. We are really not that bad, and we have got to believe in ourselves and send out a positive message.”

Hills raised concerns around our lack of preparation, and said this is something that needs addressing. She also stressed the need for building relationships between government, corporates and civil society. “Our youth is open,” she continued. “Surveys reveal that 79% of youths are positive and committed to change. We need to make the shift together and listen to them.”


Responding to the issue raised once again about whether or not South Africa has lost its moral compass, business ethics consultant Rabbi Gideon Pogrund said that ethics spread like a virus, a concept he attributed to Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University.

“An unethical virus has taken root in our society and is spreading through it,” he said. “Our greatest danger is our leaders, not in terms of cost, but in their enormous capacity to spread this virus in the most dramatic way.

“Dan Ariely says the unethical virus arises from exposure to the bad behaviour of others and the effect is insidious, passing from one person to the next, leading to a deterioration in the collective ethical norm. What was once unacceptable behaviour becomes possible and eventually endemic — a new normal.”

Pogrund said that just as unethical behaviour is contagious, ethical behaviour can also have an effect, mentioning the moral leadership displayed by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas.

“Clearly they have the deepest significance for what they stand for, in their capacity to influence people in our country,” said Rabbi Pogrund. “It is very important to launch and support our moral heroes and beyond, following in their footsteps.

“We also have to overcome virtual migration, where South Africans continue to live here, but give up on the place and distance themselves from the problems. We have to take responsibility and take an ethical stand.

“South Africa, for all its problems, has extraordinary capacity to create exceptional leaders, and now it is producing these tremendous leaders. It is vital to promote the spread of the ethical virus and it is critical these types of people stand up, and it is particularly critical that we support them.”

Principles and King IV

Terry Booysen, chief executive of the CGF Research Institute, said he had had the privilege of spending time with Nelson Mandela, whom he described as a good leader, because he could lead from the front and behind.

“I am wondering how the SABC, Prasa and Eskom, for example, could lead from behind without being arrogant and self-serving.

“Sometimes we get the simplest things wrong, but when we say ‘I am accountable’, there comes the understanding of the implications of doing something both legally-based and ethically-based; must versus should.

“If I look at the King IV corporate governance codes, the world is beginning to move away from the rules-based approach to being principle-based. Are we then equipped to follow the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law? We need to ask how much our leaders really do understand,” said Booysen.

The new King IV report will incorporate local and international developments in governance. Changes expected include style and format changes, to make the code more accessible to the wide spectrum of entities and organisations; better, more succinct content, and fewer principles for easier interpretation and implementation. The drafting process has been designed to be inclusive from the start, so it is a co-created product.

“We also need to talk about government and the system,” said Booysen. “In my opinion, the system we operate in is completely defiant, so how do we correlate a strategy to go forward? We have to remain cognisant of the fact that the ratings agencies are now monitoring our every move.

“Are we possibly being unethical by not putting a strategy in place to get out of the abyss, when our leaders obviously cannot do this?” he asked.

Where have all the leaders gone?

Interesting questions flowed to the panel in the open discussion, particularly the ones around the absence of moral and ethical leadership.
“I am not going through life with rose-coloured glasses,” said Hills. “I am aware of what is going on and what I see is that we get caught up with ourselves. Wherever I travel, everyone loves South Africa and wants to come here. As South Africans, we are all leaders and need to play a role in enhancing South Africa the brand, and its reputation.”

Mkhatshwa said: “Whoever aspires to leadership must fully understand the environment they operate in. The biggest challenge is the cancer of materialism, and that replaces the struggle and Ubuntu. Materialism makes people easily corruptible and this negates all the other positive things.

“Capital markets destroy kinships and replace these with pursuing wealth, which in turn translates into the way people behave. Even drug-lords can appear attractive, yet they are extremely toxic.

“Do some social decoding and diagnostic analysis. There are many people out there who want to be good leaders, but citizens themselves must take ownership, and it is not good enough to give a mandate to others for five years.”

Posed the question about whether we are ready for King IV, Pogrund said: “It is essential to be ready. We can have all the legislation in the world, but it is useless in a culture where there is a sea of different values. You can have sophisticated rules, but if people don’t buy into them, and circumvent them, the outcome is obvious.”

Asked whether bad behaviour is being rewarded in the boardroom, Booysen reiterated that the rot exists right now in our nation-wide leadership. “We are not a unified country and leadership is rotten from the head — government, business and society. We don’t have a common purpose and without effective, robust communication programmes, we will allow for civil leadership chaos.”