Moral regeneration needed to rebuild ethical leadership

A man promised his children he would buy them new toys at the end of the month because he knew he would be receiving his performance bonus when payday arrives. He received his bonus on a Friday, but decided to celebrate with his friends and only returned home on the Sunday. To add fuel to the fire, he had spent his whole bonus, as well as a bit of his monthly salary. The children heard their parents argue and, in the end, they both decided to tell the kids that there would be no toys that month. They decided to tell the kids that their father was robbed, and that all his money was gone. The children were not fooled and had already deduced what transpired, however, they accepted their parents’ story because there was nothing they could do about it.

In this scenario, the parents failed to take ethical accountability for what happened, and although this example may be insignificant, it plays itself out on a bigger scale, especially when promises are made on a national level and leaves many citizens feeling disappointed and despondent.

Which toys am I referring to? Well, the list is endless but to name a few, there have been several great projects and initiatives that never reached their full potential due to corruption or maladministration such as:

  • PRASA – Locomotives
  • SAA – New aircraft being bought at a ridiculously inflated price.
  • Estina Dairy Farm
  • Eskom – Power Stations
  • RDP houses that were partially or never built

These would all have been great projects with wonderful and ethical outcomes for the citizens of South Africa, if it were not for leadership that struggled with following through on their promises and taking accountability for their ethical failures.

Ethical accountability by leaders

The truth is that our leaders, be it in politics, business, or any other sphere, play the same role as guardians. Every time leaders refuse to accept moral responsibility for ethical lapses, not only does it lead to financial resources being wasted but it also slowly erodes our moral capital. Some of the given explanations are unbelievable –  literally unbelievable.

Our problem with holding leaders to account did not begin in post-democratic South Africa, in fact, we have had an accountability deficit dating all the way back to the 1700s with the 2nd Cape Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel when he used government resources to build himself a modest farm with 400 000 vines and acquired 10 000 sheep; sounds familiar? Our solution has always been more commissions of inquiry with no definitive conclusion.

We have reached a point in the country where we hear exacerbated citizens stating, “We don’t care if they steal, can they at least deliver what they promised.” This indicates that as a country we have grown accustomed to corruption and are willing to accept unethical behaviour from our leaders as long as they deliver on the bare minimum. 

South Africa has been very good at writing policies, and this can even be witnessed at organisational level. Our biggest hurdle has always been efficient and ethical implementation. Had we been able to get the implementation right we would have been in better shape. This would have been to the benefit of the majority of those who live in the country.

Where do we start?

We need to be better at holding our own leaders accountable for ethical lapses, despite the difficulty in doing so without taking drastic measures. Many countries do not tolerate unethical leadership without consequences. They did not always need to resort to protest first, but made sure their leaders were held to account. Which countries you may wonder? South Korea arrested two former presidents, and the chairperson of the biggest South Korean company, Samsung, also faced similar consequences. The former French President was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to a year in prison and now wears a tag. You may be quick to point out that President Zuma also went to jail briefly, but that is the exception rather than the rule. We tend to go after small fishes and let the big fish go.

To truly see ethical accountability will require courage and moral leadership. I have spent a significant amount of time chastising our leaders, but they are part of our society, and we need to also introspect and see that we as individuals are part of the problem. Moral leadership starts with us as ordinary citizens and the type of behaviour we exhibit in our personal and private lives. We can only hold our leaders accountable if we can also hold ourselves ethically accountable.

Our society is littered with many social ills where even something as basic as bribing a police officer is seen as something insignificant. The number of domestic violence incidents and violent crimes is alarming and many of us know at least one friend or family member who engages in crime or domestically abuses their partner. Even at an organisational level how often do we cut corners or do not give our best because we feel the organisation is only looking out for a few, and their interests are not aligned to ours. Add the fact that we are one of the most unequal countries in the world and you have ripe conditions for the calamities we see daily.

Moral regeneration?

Let us not forget that leaders come from these same societies where all these ills are happening. We need to find pragmatic ways of working through our social ills and creating a more desirable society. How do we do this? I do not have all the answers, but a few basic ideas could include:

  • Ethics leadership programmes at school level. Currently most people only get to learn about ethics formally when and if they make it to tertiary education.
  • Our media is very influential, and it might make a difference if they could report on stories that have a positive frame of reference rather than the massive amounts of bad news calories that we consume daily.
  • Leaders do not often engage face-to-face with the people they serve or lead, both in the political and in the business domain. Leaders who do not engage with their constituencies can be seen as out of touch, and this causes more disillusionment.

I do not profess to have the answers but if we do not find a way of encouraging and building our leaders through moral regeneration, moral decay will persist indefinitely.

About the author: Lulama Qabaka is an Ethics and Anti-Corruption Specialist at The Ethics Institute.