by Prof Deon Rossouw | Published on 25 January 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter
In these early days of 2019, we find ourselves in a situation where the extent and depth of corruption associated with state capture is being exposed on an unprecedented scale. Should we be delighted that all this evidence of malpractice is seeing the light of day, or is it more appropriate to be left with a sense of despair at just how easily people on all levels of government and business can be corrupted?
"It is good to see that corruption is not sustainable, and that corrupt dispensations always
produce the seeds of their own demise."
Soon after Cyril Ramaphosa took over the reigns as President of South Africa, he started appointing a series of commissions of inquiry into various persons and institutions implicated in corruption. Most prominent among these are the Zondo commission looking into state capture, the Nugent commission into tax administration and governance at SARS, and more recently the Mokgoro Commission of Inquiry focusing on key players at the National Prosecuting Authority.
It clearly takes time for commissions of inquiry to get all their ducks in a row and to start gaining traction, but once they do, they seem to be quite effective. Through them, the rot that spread in business and government, especially during the Zuma regime, is being dramatically exposed. There is now an almost constant flow of shocking revelations of how people were paid bribes to engage in all kinds of malpractices, or of how people blatantly abused positions of trust to enrich themselves. Hardest to ignore is the reality that all those millions are so badly needed elsewhere – for education, healthcare and housing – and will be very difficult to recover.
In one way, it is a cause for delight to see that people do not get away with these kinds of shenanigans indefinitely. It is good to see that corruption is not sustainable, and that corrupt dispensations always produce the seeds of their own demise. All these testimonies give one a sense of hope that corruption can be stopped and that we can rebuild the integrity of key public and private-sector organisations.
However, taking in the sheer number of politicians, public officials and business persons who have been drawn into the web of corruption can leave one feeling profoundly disillusioned, and more than a little jaded. It seems that, given the right mix of incentives, just about anyone is susceptible to the temptation to abuse their position of trust for private gain. One might be lured into a state of despair, wondering whether corruption can be eradicated.
I am not optimistic that corruption will ever be totally eradicated, given the fragile nature of human morality. But I do believe that it can be dramatically curbed, and that we can restore the integrity of organisations and institutions that have been deeply affected by state capture.
The road to regaining the integrity of organisations starts with the careful selection and appointment of ethical and effective leaders. This gets repeated over and over, and with good reason: there really is no way around the importance of leadership. The care with which the new National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) was selected is a good example of how to take these appointments seriously. Ramaphosa deserves praise for the fact that he did not merely use his presidential power to appoint a new NDPP, but instead opted for a transparent process of nominating, interviewing and finally selecting Advocate Shamila Batohi. One can only hope that he will in future apply a similar level of diligence when appointing leaders in other key institutions such as SARS, and (most importantly) his own cabinet.
Having ethical and effective leaders at the helm is indeed a good start, but it takes much more than just tone from the top to build organisations of integrity. One of the most important responsibilities of a leader on a mission to restore integrity is (re-)discovering their organisation’s moral purpose.
It might sound odd at first to say that organisations should have a moral purpose. Organisations are always created and exist for a reason – and that is to fulfil a specific purpose. Without such a purpose, an organisation loses its raison d’etre, and thus its legitimacy. However, to be an organisation of integrity, it is essential that the purpose be a moral one, where the organisation’s existence is linked to the well-being of the stakeholders and community it serves. In fact, if an organisation cannot demonstrate that its existence positively contributes to the well-being of people and communities, it is likely to lose its legitimacy and ultimately its license to operate. I say “ultimately” because, unfortunately, these things take time.
That organisations have a moral purpose (and thus a moral responsibility to fulfil) is especially true in the government and public service. Organs of state exist to serve citizens. Leaders in this context therefore have a responsibility to ensure their organisations provide effective services that contribute to the well-being and development of the country. Leaders in the private sector have a similar duty to instill a sense of moral purpose in their businesses if they wish to be trusted by consumers, clients and society at large. Businesses who cannot convincingly demonstrate that they are a force for good in society are likely to lose their legitimacy and ultimately their social license to operate.
The moral purpose of an organisation cannot merely be announced. Or printed on a poster. It requires spirited and ongoing persuasion from leadership to get and keep employees focused on fulling their organisational roles and responsibilities. Having deeply entrenched work and ethical values that are constantly promoted plays an important role in ensuring that an organisation remains true to its moral purpose. This is an arduous task, again underscoring the need for exceptional individuals in senior, example-setting, roles.
And yet, that is still not the sum of it. Even with great leadership and a clear moral purpose, there remains a crucial role for individuals of integrity. Given the human propensity for moral failure, there will always be ethical lapses in all organisations, for organisations are comprised of human beings, after all. It is exactly at that moment when things go wrong – and especially when leaders are to blame – that persons of integrity need to speak up, and speak truth to power. We have individual moral courage to thank for first unmasking the corruption of state capture, and ultimately leading us to where we are today: reeling, but informed. This personal moral courage will be needed again and again to prevent organisations from losing their integrity in future. It is a worthwhile struggle without an end.
The fragility of human morality should not lead us to despair about rebuilding an ethical post-state capture society. It should, however, be a timely and urgent reminder that we need to select ethical and effective leaders with great care, to promote the moral purpose of our organisations, and retain our belief in the difference that persons of integrity can make.
Prof Deon Rossouw is CEO of The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from University of Stellenbosch.