South Africa as an organisation: ethical or not?

by Thobile Madonsela | Published on 26 March 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Let’s imagine South Africa as an organisation, where everyone in society is an employee, members of parliament are the senior management team and the president is the Chief Executive Officer. Then, let’s think back and ask: what sort of work environment have we been experiencing in this organisation in recent years? Or, to frame the question a little differently: has this organisation had an ethical culture? 


SA flag


Let’s unpack some elements that contribute to an ethical culture and see how we,

as “employees” in society, have fared.


Leadership commitment

Tone at the top is critical for all organisations that strive to cultivate an ethical working environment, especially in challenging times. In the case of South Africa, negative factors in the external operating context – volatility in the global economy, for example – led to tumultuous conditions internally, and the organisation was in dire need of leadership. We needed leaders who encourage ethical action and ensure swift consequences for unethical behaviour. Instead, under the former CEO, there was silence, and when communication eventually did come, it was disjointed from reality and at odds with the feeling on the shop floor. Employees at times wondered whether the boss was talking about the same organisation at all. In other words, a lack of tone at the top contributed to uncertainty, demoralisation and annoyance among employees.


Employee commitment to ethics

In situations where leadership is severely lacking, individuals distributed throughout the rest of the organogram should ideally put their hands up. We saw this scenario in South Africa. Despite the veil of uncertainty and confusion from the top, the ordinary employees (society) raised their voices and led numerous demonstrations calling for the CEO to step down, each time becoming louder and more urgent. Likeminded individuals found one another in their mutual desire to root out corruption and forge a new path for their organisation. This popular resistance movement – which very quickly developed its own moral heroes such as Nhlanhla Nene, Makhosi Khoza and Thuli Madonsela – is a powerful reminder of how a loud and persistent “tone in the middle” can be a critical element of an organisation’s culture, and can even lead to change.


Ethics awareness and ethics talk

When describing an organisation’s culture, we pay attention to the degree of comfort employees feel in raising ethical concerns or even just ethical questions. This is “ethics talk”, the true marker of a mature ethical culture. In South Africa, the word “ethical” (and, more often, its opposite “unethical”) has featured countless times in popular rhetoric and media in recent years, particularly as evidence of criminal behaviour surfaced through the infamous #GuptaLeaks emails. Notice how popular awareness has shifted to recognise the importance of ethics beyond the law: as of 14 February 2018, the Former CEO Jacob Zuma had no criminal charges against him (they were only reinstated on 16 March), nor had he been found guilty by a court of law, and yet, the extent of his alleged involvement in wrongdoing was evidence enough for most South Africans to reject him as corrupt. Thus, “ethics” has become something of a buzzword, one you hear being discussed over coffee among friends, on the commute to work, even at home. These are signs of a maturing ethical culture in South Africa on the ground, even if there was a delayed reaction time among those on the executive management team (parliamentarians of the majority party, especially) in taking the necessary action.


Regulatory context

No organisation exists in isolation of a set of regulations, laws and institutions that are intended to guide its activities. It has been said that the one thing we can be thankful for from the Zuma era is the increased collective awareness of the regulatory frameworks and institutions available to us. Just think of the number of matters brought to before the court which indirectly taught us all valuable lessons about, for example, the power of the Public Protector, consequences or processes to be followed when there is a break in the oath of office, and the Speaker’s responsibilities regarding secret ballots in parliament. This speaks to the role played by the institution of the judiciary, which became a voice of reason for many, reminding us all to trust the Constitution as a Code of Conduct that must, through collective will, be upheld. At the same time, we have learned a hard lesson: when we are not dealing with upstanding individuals who have the public interests at heart, our institutions and regulations are open to abuse. But at least we know now that our regulatory frameworks need to be made to have robust enough measures to eliminate a leader who abuses their position.   



In every organisation, it is not enough to call for accountability – accountability needs “teeth” to make the actions speak louder than words. In recent years in South Africa, we have had only words and no actions, and the examples of the state-owned enterprises demonstrate this vividly. The lack of consequences for flagrant mismanagement at SAA, Eskom and SASSA were discouraging, and sent the message that there are no consequences for incompetence and corruption (and indeed that sometimes there are rewards). This breakdown of accountability impacted the culture of the organisation severely, and despondency among employees in society was rife. There was a time when it seemed that the errant CEO’s time in office would not end before 2019, and that by then the organisation would be in tatters. It felt like being in a company preparing to close down due to mismanagement. And yet, despite the highs and (considerably more) lows, the call for better ethics remained. For this, the ordinary employees of South Africa should be commended.


The future

Obviously, we now have a new CEO, and changes are taking place at last. The tone set by Cyril Ramaphosa so far inspires confidence that the culture of the organisation will change for the better, and his commitment to good, clean governance vindicates employees’ pleas all along. We have cause for hope, but Ramaphosa will need to demonstrate authentic leadership through courage and integrity if he is to achieve the enormous task ahead.

Above all, South Africa as an organisation has shown extraordinary resilience, and we should be proud to be part of such an organisation. It is now up to all of us to ensure that the first steps towards an ethical culture continue to gather momentum into the future.

Thobile Circle


Thobile Madonsela is an Associate Subject Matter Expert at The Ethics Institute. She holds an Honours Degree in Public Management and Governance from the University of Johannesburg. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University.