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How can we rebuild South Africa’s ethical foundations?

I once attended a roundtable convened by a policy think-tank in 2014 to discuss the state of the economy and the declining moral quality of the country’s leadership. This discussion was taking place at the time when South Africa was in the throes of state capture. A business leader at the meeting offered what I thought was a far-sighted perspective on ethics and public leadership, which would stay with me for a long time.

This business leader pointed out that the most devastating impact of the venal leadership class of that time on the country’s future would be society’s general acceptance of a low bar of ethics. He further pointed out that society’s moral conscience would suffer paralysis due to the audacity with which political leaders plundered state resources. In sum, this perspective cautioned us that it is not the economic cost of poor leadership that we should worry more about, but the establishment of a new standard that would deliver mediocre leadership for many years to come, a bitter bequest for future generations.

What is most troubling about acts of corruption that go on for too long without getting punished – and of the kind that we have seen before the establishment of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, known as the Zondo Commission – is that the standard any future leaders would be required to meet is dismally low.

When you measure progress from a low reference point, such as South Africa endured between 2008 and 2018, aspiring to excellence in public leadership becomes a steep mountain to climb psychologically. The situation we find ourselves in today is that whenever a politician is caught up in a conflict of interest, this triggers a polarised debate in society between those who would argue that if there was no criminality in the form of money exchanging hands, there should be no issue; and those, on the other hand, who understand that politicians should be beyond reproach if we are to secure the integrity of public institutions and strengthen the ethical foundations of society.

The gravity of corruption of the last decade has forced us, perversely, to accept ethical lapses by politicians and to rationalise these, as long as there was no criminal offence. And that is how societies start on a slippery slope.

Ethical leadership is essential for a country’s own esteem. It infuses it with a sense of self-respect. It generates what the political scientist, James MacGregor Burns, refers to as the morally uplifting quality of leadership in society, which inculcates positive awareness of what society deems acceptable and unacceptable in the conduct of its leaders and members of society.

There was a time when we had it good. Early in its democratic transition, South Africa projected a sense of being exceptional in the African continent, in a positive way, through its embrace of liberal democratic ideals etched in its constitution and norms of good governance reflected in an array of independent institutions. Others did not always see this exceptionalism positively; sometimes, accusations would be levelled at South Africa by its neighbours for trying too much to set itself apart from the rest of the African continent.

The fair-minded, however, recognised that South Africa’s exceptionalism was not a bad thing in and of itself, especially in being the lightning rod for good governance. Ethical leadership carries dividends – it burnishes a country’s credibility on the global map; it cultivates a healthy national identity and self concept; it bolsters a country’s power of attraction.

Back in the 1990s, if you were travelling abroad and you were asked by strangers which country were you from, you would confidently assert that you hailed from the land of Mandela. That response immediately registered positive imagery of the country, its value system, and its future promise. That moral quality earned South Africa enormous goodwill internationally. It does not help to be nostalgic about that time, yet we still need to ask ourselves what it means to be a South African today and what vision of the country we should hold in our minds.

How we think about ethical leadership will need to be part of the narrative of who we are. South Africa’s economic performance and overall well-being depend on ethical leadership. The testimonies presented at the Zondo Commission have given us a glimpse of how unscrupulous politicians hollowed out the state and how they repurposed public institutions for corrupt ends. We have, in a short period, experienced a significant reversal and rapid fall from grace.

The implications of our leaders’ apostasy are far-reaching, especially on the quality of our institutions and public sector performance. Many talented public servants have migrated to the private sector and academia, as they view any association with the state as posing a reputational risk to their professional careers. This antipathy to the public service becomes more intense when politicians that have the executive authority do not face any consequence for ethical lapses.

A state is ethical when it establishes a clear framework that defines what is acceptable and not acceptable by those who work in it and have in place strong restraining measures. While we have precise mechanisms to govern the conduct of bureaucrats through the public service regulations, the disciplines for politicians are softer. The public service regulations are unambiguous, for example, that public servants should not accept bribes, must avoid conflicts of interest, are not allowed to do business with the state, and should not abuse their official position for their own or relatives’ benefits.

Cabinet ministers and provincial executive authorities are governed by a code of ethics defined in the Executive Members Ethics Act. This code prohibits executive officers (ministers, deputy ministers and MECs) from undertaking any other paid work, and it cautions executive authorities against entanglement in conflict of interests. Any breach of these ethical imperatives is subject to a very long investigation process before the President triggers any sanctions.

Meanwhile, a politician may be sent on special leave while enjoying full pay and all the perquisites that come with the title. On the other hand, it is easier to dispense with bureaucrats or make them a scapegoat since they do not have political power. No doubt, this signals high tolerance levels for ethical lapses for those higher up the public service hierarchy.

Ethics are not just about preventive measures against acts of theft in government or conflict of interests – a narrow view of ethics – they also concern the positive role those that serve the state should exhibit in maximising the wellbeing of society. Positive ethics expressed in both the public service regulations and the executive members’ ethics code include the requirement for public servants to honour the constitution, prioritise public interest, promote society’s wellbeing, and protect the dignity of every person.  

If we are to fix institutional and leadership defects in the public sector and think about new frames of reference for leadership, we will need to push harder as a country for the restoration of ethical quality in the public sector. Society should also expect the country’s President and the governing party to censure acts of ethical lapses rather than dither when these come to the surface or wait for tortuously slow investigations that would uncover evidence of criminality. We can only thrive as a nation when we take ethics in public leadership seriously.

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Mzukisi Qobo
Mzukisi Qobo is the head of the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand

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