How do we help politicians remain their best selves?

by Kris Dobie | Published on 25 April 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

While we are right to appeal to politicians’ moral conscience to have the best interests of the public at heart, we also need to design systems to help them achieve that. We might like to paint politicians as people who are totally in command of their actions, and so are either good or bad, but the truth is that they are human, with human vulnerabilities. We therefore need to develop systems that put pressure on them to be their best selves, rather than pressure to be their worst.

South Africa is emerging from a period of institutionalised corruption, and we are still trying to make sense of what happened. Some argue that the state of affairs we found ourselves in stemmed from bad faith (and bad morals) within the ruling party of the day. These commentators say that Cyril Ramaphosa was part of Jacob Zuma’s government and therefore enabled the corruption that took place during that period. This view does not, however, square with Ramaphosa’s actions since assuming the Presidency, which so far seem to indicate commitment to combating corruption and improving governance. The question therefore remains: why was he, and other committed politicians, unable to bring about change during Zuma’s presidency?

The problem clearly lies in the power relations at play in political parties and in Parliament. Should the President go rogue, there is very little that can be done to hold him or her to account. In theory, Parliament can (and should) hold the President to account, but this has proven to be flawed in practice, for a number of reasons.


“High levels of presidential power might work with a well-intentioned president, yet we have seen that we

cannot count on always having one.”

Firstly, parliamentarians are not accountable to a constituency, but to their party. If they do not act in line with the decisions of their parties, they may face disciplinary action and damage their political careers, even (in a worst-case scenario) being expelled from their parties. Perhaps an even more fundamental reason for sticking to the party line is that, in the current system, ‘unity’ has become ingrained in party ideology. In the dying moments of the Zuma presidency, it became clear that unity was the overarching value of the ruling party, in that we “do not air our dirty laundry in public”. Politicians are not required to be true to the stated values of the party, but only to the party itself. This ideology impacts the way politicians (from all parties) see their accountability responsibilities.

Secondly, in the political system, senior politicians are more likely to get positions in the Executive (Cabinet), leaving the oversight of their conduct to people who are frequently their political juniors.

If we were to compare this to a private sector equivalent, it would be like expecting middle management to hold top management to account. Private sector governance principles require top management to be accountable to a board (which has significant independence), which is in turn accountable to shareholders and other stakeholders. Yet, at the more important country level, this independence is missing, save for elections every five years.

Let’s not pretend that the process of accountability works flawlessly in the private sector – a glance at the news headlines from the last eighteen months or so will tell you that – but when there are serious failures one does see corrective measures being taken. If former Steinhoff CEO Marcus Jooste had known that he was only accountable to middle management, there may have been no pressure on him to step down. And if he had known that he also had control of the criminal justice cluster of the country, he would surely have been even less inclined to relinquish power over what could have become his personal fiefdom.

Which brings us to the external institutions that play a role in holding individuals to account. Here we think of the South African Police Service, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service. We have, however, seen how all of these institutions were rendered ineffective through inappropriate appointments. And those appointments are, lo and behold, also made by the president, who furthermore managed to remove a few of them from their positions when it was more convenient to do so. While such levels of presidential power might work with a well-intentioned president, we have seen that we cannot count on always having one.

There are therefore two main issues that need to be addressed.

The first is that loyalty in politics flows to parties rather than constituencies. The Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform made some recommendations in this regard back in 2003, and perhaps it is time for these to be revisited.

The second is the extent to which power lies in the hands of the President, especially when it comes to appointing and removing people from positions in the justice cluster. This must, surely, be curbed.

I have no doubt that there are more nuanced discussions to be had around better balancing power relations, and this is exactly what I am hoping for. We could say that we have plenty of time for these discussions, since we trust the moral conscience of the current President. I would, however, say that we should appeal to President Ramaphosa’s conscience to lead with some urgency on this. It would, after all, assist him and his cabinet to remain their best selves.

A version of this article was published in Business Day.

Kris Circle

Kris Dobie is Manager: Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Master of Workplace Ethics from the University of Pretoria.