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Corruption flourishes so long as people place their own interests ahead of society’s

Inequality

The latest Eskom revelation is yet another indication of the weakening social and civic mindedness of leaders and institutions in our society. This depreciation along with the increasing sense of individualism and self-centeredness continues to threaten the moral foundations of our society. Corruption is destructive, detrimental to the expansion of human activities and ultimately bad for society’s development according to economist and philosopher Amartya Sen. Yet it continues to flourish in South Africa, the country of greatest inequality on a continent that can ill afford it. 

Corruption is a catalyst for decay and stands in opposition to growth, development, and production, so why then do we allow it to thrive? A simple answer lies in the fact that its prevalence is an indicator of the lack of care and interest in the welfare of our society and each other. Corruption thrives as individuals consider their private gains at the expense of the public good.

It is perverse that R178-million has been allowed to be syphoned out of our state-owned enterprise, an entity that is meant to be in service of the state, in service of us, the citizens of South Africa. This is not to say that thievery does not occur in the private sector but the concern for what occurs within the public sector must spark our vigilance and spur us to action to stem the disintegration of what is commonly understood as orderly and normative being bypassed for the benefit of a few. The private sector as a whole can easily claim the need to ensure profit maximisation at all costs through playing by the rules. This is not uncommon rhetoric, although it has reached its sell by date. 

On the other hand the public sector and its servants must have the protection of citizens at its core. It is telling when those entrusted with such a high honor act in a self-serving manner with little or no consideration for those they serve. There is no protection of our interest when a few benefit illegitimately. Public servants must remember they are not businessmen and women and are called to display the moral loyalty and civic virtue that is required for justice, equality and stability to prevail.

Eskom is not some arbitrary organisation with a secondary impact on our daily existence, it is central to much of our social and economic endeavors as citizens of South Africa. They literally power what it is we do in a modern society. We cannot be expected to grow the economy and improve the economic participation of our citizens when there is no power generated? Eskom received R56-billion last year and is to receive an additional R32-billion this year to ensure stability in the organisation and yet the production, transmission and distribution of electricity cannot be guaranteed. While the government directs these funds to stabilise a poorly managed entity there is a corresponding and growing dependency to support an additional 300 000 social grant beneficiaries this year with a social grants budget that has been cut by 2%. Something will not add up. As we rob Peter to pay Paul, our people suffer, our services degenerate and our quality of life declines. Consider the many people who during this winter will succumb to the cold, the pupils that will complete their homework under candlelight, the workers who will be retrenched due to the lack of production and manufacturing. These are just a few examples of how real lives are affected. It is this callousness of spending (stealing) public funds that continues to astonish as those without conscience enrich themselves. Corruption affects lives.

Moral decay

How is it that with all the checks and balances within a parastatal with arduous tendering processes we can have corruption flourishing? Corruption needs fertile grounds and as behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out, “we’ll happily cheat … until it hurts”. In other words, most people are willing to cheat if they can rationalise their cheating as harmless. They will fill their sling bags at the compound and shop in Sandton because they don’t see the immediate impact on others. Corruption in Eskom is not today’s problem; it has been long coming. 

The systems that facilitate corruption today are not new inventions, but instead engineered to benefit anyone in power. The system has been primed for predators to appropriate the goods produced by others while they contribute nothing to our society and strip it of its resources. The moral decay had set in and the fertile grounds toiled well before the demise of apartheid. We have lost our civic pride and consequently “the eye of the needle” has narrowed. Our moral compass no longer points to true north as the amoral outnumber the moral and lead the way. Moral decay grows and with each generation it is reinforced. Predation has been accepted as profitable and behaving in a moral manner considered personally costly as our natural defenses against moral decay have been lowered over time. We have chosen to judge those who act with integrity over those who behave shamelessly.

Why have we slumped into this state of complacency where immorality has corralled so many to accept that if everyone else is doing it … it’s okay? Poor political, business, and civic education have no doubt contributed to this state. We teach people what we think they should know, rather than what is important to know. We show and share models more readily than the requisite morals. We cheer on those bandits that rob us all in the name of entitlement because the previous regime of thieves did it and if we don’t do it first someone else will. We continuously expose the future leaders of society to the acceptance that those who commit such crimes can go unpunished, reinforcing that those that live and work with integrity are the losers. 

It will cost us another R90-million to bring corrupt officials to account for their actions, if ever we see this day. But let us not forget that those who remain silent are equally to blame for the decay we see in our society. I am not for one moment suggesting that every citizen acts saintly but at a minimum we must find that equilibrium based on basic minimum moral standards. We must therefore concern ourselves with character and not the cadre, competency and not the connection, honesty and not the expediency.

Character

We must guard against the lights going out on the inside, as moral decay starts in one’s heart. We all can identify what character is just as easily as we can identify when it is absent. The Greek origin of the word stems from the word kharakter, meaning an “engraved mark”, “symbol or imprint on the soul” and “instrument for marking”. It would suggest that character relates to the qualities that distinguish one thing from another. Over time it has come to represent the qualities that define us as individuals. Here I draw attention to how character relates to an individual and their habits, motives, morality and thoughts. What is evident in the continuing pilfering of state coffers is the questionable character of those that have been placed in positions of power and authority. As Abraham Lincoln said, “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Honesty must become a state of mind and ethical standards must be maintained. The cost not to do so is far too great for all of us to bear. The sense of entitlement which has come to embody the barbaric behavior of many leaders in the public and private sector has not been curtailed. It has been left unchecked for too long and so we have nurtured these misguided women and men. We have created the opportunities for temptation to take hold of them. We have fallen into the trap where integrity is no longer central in our society and the product of this are leaders of poor character.

What we see today is nothing more than a reversal of positions where the powerful continue to keep the masses oppressed through their corrupt behavior. I am reminded of what Nelson Mandela said, that “character is how you treat those who do nothing for you” and that “when a (wo)man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.” We should all take note of this as citizens of this country first before we see ourselves as businesspeople or public servants. We have a duty towards each other before our self-interest. For us to realise this peace and we cannot ignore the truth that rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak live together in one society.

Civic Duty

What then are we called to do as citizens, as businesspeople, as public servants and as leaders? We must ensure that justice is delivered and the dignity of all our citizens are maintained. Our attention must be directed at one common interest, the eradication of inequality within our society. This is when business is put to good use, and when government serves its purpose. This is by far our greatest challenge and cannot be addressed as the tentacles of corruption keep reaching into our coffers. It is our responsibility as citizens in whichever communities we live and work to call out those who act in corrupt relationships. Corruption has a real impact, not only filling the bellies of the corruptors and corrupted but it further disenfranchises and denies opportunities for work, education, and full participation in society for those who are already at the margins. 

Developing civic mindedness and a sense of duty to our country must be part of any organisational culture. We must make sure that our businesses and the people within them care not only for profit, but act with purpose. This goes beyond the notion of creating volunteering opportunities or the delivery of corporate social responsibility programmes. We must address morality within the workplace. Responsible business leaders and public servants should know and display this in their actions. Playing by the rules and obeying the law is sufficient, but we must aspire to a higher standard to see the moral outnumber the amoral. While we have a democracy, it requires that we do more than play within the rules and comply with the law and we must not only be dutifully obliged to be in service of the public, but we must also strive to do so with virtue. We must move beyond the minimum and consider our citizenship through our attitudes, practices and activities in a manner that develops character. What we must revisit is the dwindling number of civil society organisations where much of this teaching and learning occurred in the past. Business and civil society can come together here. We must ensure that these organisations are sustained as they often promote the prosocial attitudes required to strengthen societies. In the end we must all see ourselves in service of others, the greatest calling anyone of us can have, and in so doing we will protect our interest and care for our needs.

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Armand Bam
Dr Armand Bam is the head of social impact and senior lecturer in business in society at the University of Stellenbosch Business School

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