In 2006 I participated in the Ethical Leadership conference, which I learned had grown out of Nelson Mandela’s recognition that our deeply traumatised society needed an “RDP of the soul”.
I recognise that children are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, of what is just and unjust — an innate sense of morality that directs how we are human. The circumstances of life affect this innate sense of morality of individuals, resulting in the need for ethics to be learned and taught in the context of understanding that people are geared for goodness and that it is possible to encourage the formation of South African citizens of good moral character who can serve society as agents of transformation in the places they have influence.
Those who take on responsibilities of leadership are imperfect and will face serious ethical challenges that will require them to make decisions based on fairness and ethical guidelines, rather than on personal, political and financial considerations. Ethical actions must be characterised by respect for others, respect for differences, being trustworthy, being morally aware and demonstrating the behaviour expected of them, with a goal of making the world a more just and decent place.
It has been my privilege to work with whistleblowers, people who have demonstrated immense courage and the conviction of their beliefs in standing for the truth irrespective of the cost. Sadly, they have suffered immense harm in refusing to go along with the unethical practices they have witnessed.
Among the whistle-blowers is a man who has served our country for 14 years in the development sector as a project manager with extensive experience of monitoring and evaluation. He is the recipient of more than one Service Excellence Award.
But after blowing the whistle his family have had to give up their home. Their car was repossessed. Their oldest daughter made an attempt to take her own life. The second daughter is a gymnast with provincial colours who was due to compete nationally and stood a chance of being selected to represent our country. The family have had to set themselves up in an informal settlement far from where the children were attending school, so the children have been uprooted from their social environment and their friends, resulting in the major stress of coping with many losses. There is no income for the daughter to sustain her passion for gymnastics. The family now live far from the gymnastics club where she trained every day. The father travels far every day to volunteer his services in project management.
This man has the rare distinction of having been dismissed from his senior appointment twice in the course of his employment, both times for blowing the whistle. He has also served in various capacities as a labour activist in leadership positions in the National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers. Under his leadership, the union advanced the law by setting a new precedent through a successful case that was heard in the constitutional court in respect of ensuring transparency in the performance of our public services.
One of the most harmful realities in labour practice is the Protected Disclosures Act (PDA) requires an employee to first report knowledge of wrongdoing to the employer. In the majority of instances, the wrongdoing is either committed by or is tolerated by the employer, who simply turns a blind eye, most often because there is collusion among the senior management in the wrongdoing and so the disclosure of this critical information becomes a victim of unethical management. Often this is for purposes of political expediency.
Although there is no redress in sight for the family, they have remained committed to the practice of always doing the right thing and of modelling authentic ethical leadership. This is the leadership that should be recognised, honoured and rewarded.
These kinds of people are the sources of genuine moral renewal in our country but their torment and struggle continues while interminable and costly legal processes carry on at a snail’s pace.
Our country owes the still unacknowledged leadership exhibited by these active agents of moral transformation a debt of deep gratitude.
Marjorie Jobson is the national director of the Khulumani Support Group.