Blowing the whistle should not lead to banishment

By Kris Dobie

As the pieces of the state capture puzzle are starting to come together, and as the nascent sense of justice can be sensed in recent arrests, we easily forget the role played by those men and women who exposed corrupt dealings at a time when it was not particularly safe to do so.  In many instances they were just doing their jobs and reporting irregularities where they saw them, but in many more cases they broke rank and, at severe personal risk, exposed wrongdoings to the media, lawyers, or the (previous) Public Protector. Today we refer to them as whistleblowers.

Many, if you ask them, will tell you that they didn’t initially think of themselves as whistleblowers. Concerned and responsible citizens maybe. Just doing what needed to be done.  But as they experienced the personal trauma that unfolded afterwards, they realised why the term ‘whistleblower’ has such a negative connotation.

There have been many recent articles about the severe repercussions that whistleblowers have had to persevere. Many struggle to find employment after having done their public duty, leading to severe financial, emotional, and personal strains.

It is a very strange thing that occurs when someone blows the whistle. I recently read an article where someone said it is like an immune reaction that takes place and organisations and society want to expel the whistleblower. It is easier to understand this at an organisational level. The whistleblower has upset the status quo and created chaos where there was order. The fact that that order included institutionalised ethical transgressions becomes irrelevant.  It may even be that the whistleblower has pointed out practices that the rest of the management team may have had a moral blind-spot to and rather than own up, it seems that it is just easier not to face this non-team player going forward.

At the societal level it is more difficult to explain why we tend to leave whistleblowers out in the cold.  It may be that companies fear association with anyone who has had that much media attention.  Or that they are just unsure of whether this person is a natural ‘troublemaker’. Perhaps we all fear that we may have smallanyana (tiny, little) skeletons that these people with their superpowers may sniff out.

Although many will agree that the whistleblowers have taken a huge personal risk for a public good, very few are willing to take a personal risk in return and employ them.

And perhaps this is normal. But then we have to do something about it.  Surely we can’t just happily stand by and ask individuals to carry tremendous personal costs for a societal good. We don’t expect one person to bankrupt themselves to build a road that the rest of us can use.  But if they expose corruption in relation to the building of that road, we are perfectly happy for them to bankrupt themselves.

If, as a society, we feel that whistleblowers assist by shining a light on hidden transgressions that cause societal harm, we should be wanting more people to do the same. But if at the same time we are saying to potential whistleblowers that they are likely to carry a huge personal burden with which we won’t be supporting them, it surely sends the wrong message.

Frequently when we do training on whistleblowing we ask the question of whether whistleblowers should be rewarded.  Most people say no – we should not be incentivising people for doing what should be their normal moral duty. Which seems to make sense. But, it seems that as a species we don’t act in line with our moral duty and support and acknowledge whistleblowers, carrying them on our shoulders through the streets to celebrate the great good that they have done. Rather, we banish them so that we can move on and forget about the whole sordid affair.

So, what is to be done?

One option is to incentivise whistleblowing in the way that the United States does.  It has no less than four programmes that incentivise people to blow the whistle on federal securities violations, exchange control violations, tax fraud or fraud against the federal government.  Generally, whistleblowers are paid a percentage of funds that are recovered by the government – up to 30% in some cases.  The largest award to date has been $250 million.

It is not difficult to see that there might be unintended consequences from a system like that, ranging from ‘fishing’ allegations to creating a corporate spying career option and a mercenary whistleblowing culture.

Also – there are cases that might not include the recovery of funds – such as environmental transgressions – which would still be without compensation.

There has been a recent letter written by a South African whistleblower that makes some suggestions.

Bianca Goodson, Trillian/McKinsey/Eskom whistleblower, wrote a public letter to Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter asking him to actively employ whistleblowers, donate a fraction of recovered funds to whistleblowers who have lost their livelihoods, and publicly demonstrate gratitude ‘to those who have lost more than Eskom during their efforts to progress Eskom’.

De Ruyter responded with a very gracious letter acknowledging the ‘substantial contribution’ that Goodson made to Eskom, but says he can’t pay as there is no provision for it in law. I would argue that the Eskom board can decide to make a contribution on the basis that is in the long-term best interest of the organisation. If whistleblowers are shielded from fallout, future whistleblowers will face a weaker disincentive not to report, and the company will be more likely to find out about transgressions that cause it harm.

But this would still be a once-off solution. Other whistleblowers will surely face personal detriment again in future. And yes, there is the Protected Disclosures Act, but seeing what whistleblowers go through it just seems woefully inadequate.

Surely as a society we can do better. Costs for performing a societal good should be carried collectively, not individually.


Kris Circle

Kris Dobie is a Senior Manager in Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute

Workplace Bullying

By Berenice Meintjes

At Philafrica Foods everyone must be treated with dignity and respect at all times, and we have a zero tolerance approach towards any form of workplace bullying. Because we care about you we want you to be aware of your rights as well as your responsibilities.

What you need to know

Bullying refers to any unfavourable or offensive conduct which has the effect of creating a hostile work environment for someone as well as repeatedly attempting to torment or wear a person down by provoking, intimidating and intentionally harming the person. This includes:

  • Yelling, cursing or swearing at a colleague;
  • Blaming a person for the mistakes of another;
  • Taking credit for a colleague’s work or trying to sabotage their work;
  • Ridiculing a colleague through unsubstantiated criticism or copying emails that are critical of a colleague to people who do not need to know;
  • Attacking a colleague’s self-esteem;
  • Using social media and other communication technology platforms to intimidate, harass, embarrass or victimise a colleague;
  • Constantly criticising a colleague publicly;
  • Overbearing supervision, misuses of power or making threats/comments about an employee’s job security without foundation;
  • Being burdened with an unrealistic work schedule in comparison to others.

What must you do?

Keep a careful written record of the details of all incidents and using this information, write a request to the bully to cease their behaviour. Should the behaviour persist, write a formal complaint to your manager and thereafter HR.

What will we do?

Workplace bullying is a violation of fundamental human rights that often leave victims physically, psychologically, and professionally scarred. Be assured that you have an open avenue for reporting any bullying or victimisation by management or your colleagues, confidentially to HR, and the Company undertakes to investigate all reported concerns.

Your responsibilities:

It is important to note that having an assertive manager does not mean that the manager is a bully. Managers have the responsibility to ensure that each employee performs to the expected standard and behaves in accordance with company values. The distinction lies in the intention of the action: where the intention is to hurt, demean or humiliate an employee through direct or indirect negative actions or words, the manager has crossed the line and then becomes a bully.

Your rights:

Labour legislation now looks at bullying the same way it looks at harassment or a dignity violation, making it a serious offense. You have a right to the protection of your physical and emotional wellbeing at work and no forms of harassment should be tolerated.

Should you have unethical or criminal behaviour of any nature to report, please make use of the Tip Off Anonymous line.

Ethics Practitioners’ Survey answers many questions about ethics practitioners in Southern Africa

By Dr. Paul Vorster


Ethics has become a catchphrase in South Africa. With the sheer number of ethical failures encountered in the public, private, and SOE sectors, managing the ethics of organisations is starting to become a priority. Many organisations have realised that managing ethics risk is as important as managing operational, strategic or financial risk. Unfortunately, the same organisations often struggle to take ethics seriously, or provide the resources required for the effective management of ethics.

The job of managing ethics often falls to ethics practitioners’, which are a much-needed resource right now. These individuals are often asked to spearhead ethics management interventions, compile an ethics risk register, generate ethics awareness, and develop and design ethics management strategies and interventions. In addition, they also provide ethics advisory services to employees, train senior management on ethics, analyse behavioural trends, revise ethics policies, and manage the safe-reporting system in the organisation. This must be done while the ethics practitioner tries to catalyse the development of an ethical culture which is a corporate governance imperative in the King IV Code of Corporate Governance.

It is becoming clear then, that ethics practitioners have a very challenging role. To add to this challenge, most ethics practitioners fulfil this role on a part-time basis where they must simultaneously focus on their primary designation while trying to manage ethics.

Much about the ethics practitioner role is unknown. This creates an additional challenge as there is no uniform approach for an ethics practitioner to operate effectively.

The Ethics Practitioners’ Survey was therefore conceived by The Ethics Institute to better understand the ethics practitioner and the ethics management functions of organisations. This survey was completed by 249 ethics practitioners operating in Southern Africa. Numerous questions about the role of the ethics officer were asked. In this article we will look more closely at some of this data with a focus on the challenges faced by the ethics practitioner in their day-to-day work. 

What does an ethics practitioner do?

Figure 1 below displays the most frequent tasks (i.e. priorities) completed by the ethics practitioner based on the survey results.

Figure 1. The primary (most frequently implemented) tasks of the ethics practitioner


It can be noted from the above list, which only displays those activities which are considered a priority by ethics practitioners, that the number of tasks the ethics officer must accomplish are widespread. This is extremely challenging. Let us look more closely at some of these tasks.

Most ethics practitioners indicated that most of their job involves fighting corruption and fraud in organisations (73%) followed by the provision of ethics advisory services to non-managerial employees (69%). Thereafter, the most important tasks of the ethics practitioner were to provide ethics advice to line managers (67%) and manage disclosures of financial interest (67%). Other tasks that also take priority include the conducting of pre-employment screening to ensure ‘good apples’ are selected into the organisation (65%), implementing organisation-wide ethics awareness programmes (63%), and investigating ethics issues/problems in the organisation (63%).

This is by no means a comprehensive list. It can be noted however that the tasks are numerous and often highly complex. Additionally, many of these tasks take the same priority.

What are the characteristics of the ethics management function?

To better understand the role of the ethics practitioner we also inquired about the ethics management function. For example, whether the ethics management function is a standalone function (i.e. in the form of an independent ethics office) or whether it is shared with another function.

Figure 2. Is the ethics function a standalone function or is it shared with another function?


It is interesting to note that 71% of ethics practitioners indicated that the ethics management function they work in is a shared function.

In other words, nearly 3 out of every 4 ethics practitioners manage the ethics of the organisation on a part-time basis. Only 29% of ethics practitioners indicated the ethics function is a standalone function. If the complexities of the tasks of the ethics practitioner is considered, this poses a huge challenge for ethics practitioners to be effective at their work with other work considerations often taking priority.

However, it is possible that many organisations incentivise the management of the ethics function. To answer this question, we asked ethics practitioners whether management of the ethics function formed part of their key performance indicators (KPIs).

Figure 3. The management of the ethics function is often not incentivised


It can be noted from the results in Figure 3 that more than 2 out of 3 ethics practitioners are not incentivised for taking on the responsibility of the management of ethics in the organisation. This indicates that this position is not a ‘core’ priority for most organisations.

We also wanted to find out which functions in the organisation most often take up the responsibility of managing ethics.

Figure 4 on the following page elicits which functions in the organisation were most likely to manage the ethics as an additional part of their mandate.

Figure 4. Functions that manage the ethics of the organisation

It can be noted from Figure 4 that Human Resources (19%), Risk (18%) and Compliance (12%) are the functions that most often take on the responsibility for managing ethics in the organisation. Even the Company Secretariat (CoSec) manage ethics more often than an independent ethics function (9%).

Although these functions can manage ethics effectively and do so in many organisations, it is often more challenging. For example, the greatest challenge with the Human Resources function managing ethics, is that this function may be perceived as the disciplinary function in the organisation. This may create a fear to report to the ethics practitioners that are trying to manage ethics and create open communication between this function and employees.

Additionally, the Risk function may be viewed in a similar manner. This function often focuses on cataloging risk and developing mitigation interventions. Although this is useful, ethics risk mitigation is only a small part of the responsibilities of the ethics practitioner. This is a similar problem with the Compliance function. Additionally, although the CoSec is becoming more involved in the management of ethics in most corporate organisations, this function may not enjoy the positional power and influence of some other functions and may be ignored.

The biggest challenge with situating the ethics function in an existing function is the confusion this creates amongst employees regarding the role of the ethics practitioner.

In Figure 5 on the following page, we look more closely at some of the most pertinent challenges faced by ethics practitioners in their day-to-day work.

Figure 5. The primary challenges faced by ethics practitioners when managing ethics

It can be noted from Figure 5 that the most challenging aspect to managing ethics in the organisation is not having the finances/resources to do so effectively (13%). In addition, ethics practitioners also indicated that corruption, illegality, and a lack of ‘organisational will’ was as potent a challenge as not being resourced effectively (13%). It would also be naive to think that these two themes are not related to one another as finances/resources are often withheld when the organisational will to manage ethics is lacking.

A very interesting challenge to managing ethics was the misconceptions and fear about what the ethics practitioner does (9%). In other words, employees do not really understand the role of the ethics practitioner and therefore do not use this ethics practitioner as a resource for ethics advice or for reporting misconduct. This is an interesting challenge as previous results elucidated that the ethics function is often shared by another function.

Additionally, we now know that most ethics practitioners manage ethics part-time and are not well incentivised to do so. It would also be naïve to think that the role-confusion employees display regarding the ethics practitioner is because the ethics practitioner role is not well defined in organisations.


From initial investigations into the role of the ethics practitioner it has become evident that it involves a high level of complexity. In addition, there are many tasks that need to be accomplished by the ethics practitioner for ethics to be managed effectively.

The under-resourcing of the ethics function and the lack of incentives for ethics practitioners indicates that the job of the ethics practitioner is highly challenging. With business and organisational ethics becoming highly important areas of focus for organisations, it is ironic that the ethics function is not given the same importance as many other functions.

In summary, organisations should prioritise the ethics management function and ensure that ethics practitioners are provided the support and resources to manage ethics and ethics risk in the organisation. Unless organisations change their mindset towards the management of ethics, more ethical failures will be sure to follow.


Dr Paul Vorster is a Senior Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute

The fight against corruption is in your hands ethical citizens


By Liezl Groenewald | Published on 23 September 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


In the now, some would say, infamous letter of President Cyril Ramaphosa to ANC members (published on 23 August 2020), he stated that the ANC needs to face the reality that its leaders stand accused of corruption – and that the party itself is “accused number one”.

Although many welcomed his words and views it as a turning point in the fight against corruption, there are also those citizens who expressed their cynicism; such as VictoriaAfrica2 who Tweeted “Mr President (do you) honestly think that writing a letter is going to solve the corruption issue in the ANC? The damage is severe… The wound is soo deep and unfortunately there’s absolutely nothing he can do to solve it..” and VuoLu2Li stating that “with due respect president we are tired of the singing, it’s like a broken record now. We need action taken, we need to see people in orange overalls.” Their cynicism is of course justifiable as we have not seen much being done in bringing culprits to justice.

Ramaphosa, quite rightly, pointed out that corruption is not only a problem within the ANC but is also rooted in private sector companies and individuals, including civil servants.  This is not new news to South African citizens. We know that corruption is flourishing in our society. And although justice needs to be served to address corruption, citizens must understand that justice alone, will not solve the problem of embedded corruption in our society.

Addressing corruption is linked to the promotion of individual and social integrity. This means that every citizen of this country has a role to play in preventing corruption by acting with personal integrity and making ethical choices. Addressing corruption requires of each of us to embrace ethical citizenship.

It is Aristotle who asserted that all ethical obligations stem from the fact that humans, as social animals, yearn to live in relationship with each other in constructive harmony. To do so requires that we acknowledge our civic responsibilities and demonstrate our social consciousness and determination to contribute to the good of society. To be a responsible citizen entails being an ethical citizen. This translates into being responsible; not turning one’s back on the truth: and doing one’s share as a member of society. It embodies both civic duties and civic virtues.

Our civic duty refers to our ethical obligations and standards of behaviour that forms the basis of the minimal requirements of ethical citizenship. Civic duties refer to the moral “must”, or moral obligations that society requires of its citizens, such as paying taxes, complying with the law, and minimising waste and pollution. Civic virtues, on the other hand, are more aspirational – they refer to a softer “should”. These virtues define an optional dimension of ethical citizenship and refer to behaviour that is desirable, worthy of encouragement, and praiseworthy, but not morally instructed by society. Examples hereof are giving time or money to a charitable cause, assisting an elderly person to cross the street, or standing up for what is right even if it is not self-serving to do so.

So how can being an ethical citizen contribute to addressing corruption? It is all too common to hear that the only way to address corruption is by the government acting against perpetrators. But it is not the only way. Ethical citizenship requires of us to not only do our civic duty, but to do more than is morally expected. It requires that members of society speak-up when they observe or know of corruption. It requires that citizens develop a strong sense of right and wrong and the confidence that their act of courage, blowing the whistle on corruption, will make a difference.

As ethical citizens, we need to believe that we too can contribute to addressing corruption by reporting it to the right authorities. Where would South Africa have been if it was not for courageous people like Bianca Goodson, former CEO of Trillion Capital, who blew the whistle on what was later termed State Capture, or Philemon Ngwenya who exposed irregularities in the Estina dairy farm project? These citizens did South Africa a huge favour by exposing corruption. They believed that they can have an impact, that they will be heard, and that action will be taken against the wrongdoers. Admittedly, action in some cases is still pending and it has not come easy for them as they have all suffered retaliation. Philemon Ngwenya paid with his life. But they were heard and the impact they have had on South Africa’s fight against corruption, can never be negated.

South Africans must embrace their responsibility to be ethical citizens. They need not turn their backs on the truth. We have an obligation to assist President Ramaphosa in his quest to expose wrongdoers who undermine our democracy and erode our economy. We cannot stand back and proclaim that it is the government’s responsibility only to address corruption. Those days are long gone.


Liezl Circle

Liezl Groenewald is a Senior Manager at The Ethics Institute

You cannot fight corruption by fighting corruption

by Prof Leon van Vuuren | Published on 25 August 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Corruption has become endemic to our society. This means that there are no longer small pockets of corruption. It is pervasive. Eskom. PPE. Money not reaching the poor. An estimated R61.5 billion of irregular government spending during 2019. Bankrupt municipalities. Skimming off the top. Blatant and shameless nepotism. Ineffectual measures to stem the tide. Unempowered and unenabled judicial and law enforcement efforts. Lots of talk about fighting corruption but seemingly to little effect.

The nett effects are a dark societal psyche, anger, frustration, despondency, and uncertainty about the future – not only our futures but also the futures of generations to come. Society has lost confidence in its leadership. So much so, that previously trusted leaders are being ridiculed in all forms of media. In short: people are gatvol. The frustration, of course, also stems from a sense of ‘we cannot do much about this’. Such a psyche, with its own particular and pervasive narrative, is clearly dangerous for societal harmony and sustainability.

How can the tide be turned? As a small step forward, we will identify several traditional and popular ways of fighting corruption and evaluate their effectiveness. We will then explore a few ideas on what could be done to affect the tide.

Traditional efforts to fight corruption

The most popular ways to fight corruption are based on the notion of ‘fighting corruption’. Billions are thrown at efforts to stem the tide. Thus, money is thrown at the problem. Countless conferences, forums and thinktanks are arranged to discuss ways of fighting corruption. Such forums become echo-chambers where like-minded people rant and rave about corruption and develop ’cures’ for the diseases. Practically though, the talk is diluted when it leaves the forum room. Medication or ‘cures’ are seldom dispensed after the forum discussions, as there may be structural inadequacies, or a lack of courage and competence to implement solutions generated.

Commissions of inquiry are appointed to investigate large-scale corruption. Organisations and alliances are formed resulting in treaties. Pacts are signed between various role players. Guidelines are set by ‘acronym’ and other entities such as the UNGC, OECD, TI, and the World Bank internationally, and locally OUTA and Corruption Watch.

Various international legislative requirements also exist to combat corruption and economic crime: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, United Kingdom Anti-bribery Act, Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption guidelines provides some direction in Africa, and on the local front, we have the Public Finance Management Act, Municipal Finance Management Act, and the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act.

Why traditional efforts are not effectual

In the ‘fight’ against corruption many of these initiatives are relatively successful in developed countries, yet seemingly ineffectual in many other parts of the world. Perhaps because these are thrown ‘at’ the rest of the world in the frantic fight against corruption? Without discrediting the passion and hard work of many anti-corruption efforts and entities and the people that serve in them, corruption is increasing rapidly in South Africa.

Why are these initiatives seemingly teethless? During the 2017 Annual Conference of The Ethics Institute, Trevor Manuel, in his plenary address proposed that perpetrators have lost their sense of shame. Elected and not elected officials are impervious to public shame.

Shame involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. It is the painful feeling arising from being aware of having done something dishonourable. The answer may be found in the word ‘in-group’. In-group thinking may stem from a collective narcissism. Zalava (2009) found that the central feature of narcissism is emotional dependence on admiration and recognition by others. When that admiration is sought on behalf of a group, narcissism becomes collective. When a particular group experiences the feeling of having been deprived of something or having been discriminated against, collective groupthink may result.

When a group of leaders share collective narcissism, they reject or attack groups that somehow threaten their group’s grandiose image. They reject criticism and acquire conspiratorial thinking, such as a shared perception of corruption as a victimless crime, a distorted sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy. Since it is easier for many people to share blame than it is for people to be held accountable as individuals, any sense of accountability is diluted within the collective. ‘It was a joint decision’’. ‘Everyone knew about it’. And, most disturbingly, when the collective forms the opinion that ‘everyone does it and that makes it okay’. Of course, the collective also demands loyalty – this invokes a culture of fear where wrongdoing is denied and even those in the system that are honest compared to the rest of the group, endorse transgressions through silence.

Leaders have power. So do groups of collective narcissists. The loyalty that they demand may not be questioned by their followers. Criticising, or even merely talking about corruption becomes akin to being disloyal. Corruption is then silently accepted by followers, irrespective of their sense of fairness and justice. Loyalty thus trumps justice.

The demand for and an unchallenged tradition of loyalty above all else invokes a culture of fear in the populace. Not only fear of speaking up but also fear and reluctance by those who have been officially designated to investigate and police corruption and to prosecute perpetrators.

It has been said that a sure sign of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result. Throwing pacts, treaties, codes, and guidelines at perpetrators to ‘fight’ corruption or prevent it, becomes the same action that is repeated over and with an expectation that the result will be different, or better, than previous efforts. In-group thinking brings about the development of very thick skins that eventually cause the in-group to be impervious to shame.

Lastly, when you fight corruption, it fights back. Laws that allow forms of secrecy are promulgated. Hindrances are put in the way of those appointed to monitor and audit corruption, for example, investigators, prosecutors, internal auditors. Even the Auditor-General is handicapped, and control over the Public Prosecutor ensures an easy ride into the sunset of corruption. Whistleblowers are victimised and persecuted for being disloyal or jealous of those that have been ‘lucky’ to enrich themselves. And, of course, whistleblowers often pay with their lives.

What could work?

In line with the title of this article, You cannot fight corruption by fighting corruption, I have identified a number of actions that could potentially contribute to stem the tide:

  • Collective action to build healthy ethical cultures: agreement among different stakeholders to implement a joint programme with clear goals and timelines with the aim of reducing corruption.
  • Transparent communication: the money trails for funds designated for specific application or distribution should be communicated openly and transparently in the routes where money flows. Mohamed El Dahshan (2020) of Harvard University writes that fighting corruption is best done when people work together from the bottom up. During the 1990s Uganda, when it suffered from a problem of corruption so severe that, for every 100 dollars the government would disburse to schools across the country, only 20 would reach the destination; 80 dollars would somehow disappear, siphoned along the way. So, the Ministry of Finance decided to try a novel approach: it informed the local media and placed posters in schools detailing the sums to be released. This time, 90% of the money reached its destination.
  • Legitimate agents: When money is disbursed it should be done under conditions of strict monitoring, auditing, and reporting – this should apply to all public spending and donor funding.
  • Education: the public should be continuously educated about what corruption is in simple terms, and why it is wrong. When a member of a community suddenly acquires an expensive vehicle, this should be questioned in terms of whether his/her income justifies such a purchase. Communities should be educated to understand that expensive acquisitions are not necessarily symbolic of success in work or business, but that it could have been obtained by illegal means or activities of corruption. Citizens are thus empowered to question things.
  • Naming and shaming: Those that commit corruption steal from the people. Continuous public exposure of such individuals and groups should become standard practice. The invasion of privacy excuse used to mitigate such drastic action loses its validity when people steal from society. Lifestyle audits can be mentioned in the same breath – taxpayers have a right to know how responsibly, or not, their money is spent.
  • Visible sanctions: Albeit that there are other, more constructive, ways of inculcating an ethical culture in society, transparent, consistent, decisive, and swift punishment of transgressors remains an effective way of preventing corruption.
  • Rewarding of whistleblowers: Practical ways of rewarding those that expose wrongdoing should be conceptualised and implemented.
  • Media contribution: The media could play an important role in shifting the focal points of respect from revering those who ‘have’ to commend those who are honest. The media can also contribute by creating a culture where critical thinkers are not labelled as coconuts or racists.


El Dahshan, M. (2013). Shame, people power and corruption. (accessed on 19 August 2020).

Zalava, A. (2009). Collective narcissism and its social consequences. (accessed on 19 August 2020).


Prof Leon van Vuuren is Executive Director: Business and Professional Ethics at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate of Industrial Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.





Why are South Africans disrespecting COVID-19 regulations?

by Prof Deon Rossouw | Published on 24 July 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


Our President, the Minister of Health, and a number of other members of our national cabinet have on various occasions reprimanded – some would say scolded – South Africans for not adhering to the myriad of regulations that government announced to curb the spread of the Corona pandemic in South Africa. And they seem to have good reasons for doing so, given the fact that South Africa has not only the highest number of COVID-19 infections on the African continent, but also the fifth highest number of infections in the world.

Why are South Africans so loath to follow the seemingly well-intended regulations issued by government? The lack of respect for the laws and regulations in the time of the Corona pandemic is indeed cause for concern, as it can have fatal consequences not only for those who disobey these regulations, but also for all with whom they are in contact with.

Lawlessness can potentially cause huge harm to both individuals and to society as a whole. The Greek philosopher, Socrates (c. 470 – 399 B.C.) already emphasised and demonstrated how essential law-abiding behaviour is. When he was sentenced to death, and was awaiting his execution, a well-intended and well-off friend of his arranged for his escape from prison, but Socrates refused this offer, based on his respect for the law. He argued that one cannot be expedient in following the law, thus abiding by it when it suits you, but breaking it when the law does not suit you. As a consequence of his respect for the law, Socrates was executed, although he did not agree with the death penalty imposed on him.

A case can be made for breaking the law on moral grounds in circumstances where specific laws are regarded as unfair or unethical. This is in fact what Mandela did under the Apartheid legal dispensation. Civil disobedience is a recognized form of moral protest, but it is a form of protest that should only be used as a last resort, after all other legally admissible remedies have failed. And it should only be used in cases where fundamental human rights are at stake.

Living in a state of general lawlessness is not only inconvenient, unpredictable and unsafe, but also potentially lethal. Given the importance of law-abiding behaviour for creating safe, just and prosperous societies, how should we make sense of the wide-spread disrespect for the recent spate of regulations that were issued to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in South Africa?

There are at least four considerations that might play a role in the reluctance of South Africans to abide by the said regulations.

Making an exception of yourself

There are some persons who simply make exceptions of themselves when it comes to abiding by the law. Although they might believe that laws are required in any orderly society, they nevertheless take the liberty of not abiding by the law themselves. By making exceptions of themselves, such people start normalising the breaking of the law. We have seen this kind of behaviour, for example with speeding on our roads, where over time more and more people start making exceptions of themselves, and ultimately speeding became a widespread phenomenon with fatal consequences in our society.

Also, in the case of the Corona pandemic, there are many persons who wilfully do not abide by regulations related to face masks and social distancing. By making exceptions of themselves, and getting away with it, they set the tone for a much wider disregard for these regulations. In this time where the disdain for regulations has become a matter of life and death, there is a moral obligation on all citizens to not make exceptions of themselves when it comes to obeying potentially lifesaving regulations.

Bread first, law later

Another reason for not abiding by the law and spirit of the COVID-19 regulations, is sheer desperation among a sizable part of our population. In the field of ethics there is the well-known principle of “Bread first, morals later” that signifies that personal survival overrides all other concerns. While theft is generally regarded as morally unacceptable, we tend to judge people differently who steal food to stay alive. What applies to ethics, also applies to the law. People who find themselves starving to death in the time of the Coronal pandemic, are likely to resort to all possible means to stay alive, including illegal means. This stark reality should remind us as a society that we have a moral obligation to provide for those who find themselves in desperate situations where survival has become the overriding concern.

Inconsistent application of regulations

Respect for the law and regulations are also undermined by the inconsistent application thereof. This is especially the case when the application of law and regulations depends on the position that you occupy in society or in an organisation. There are few things that erode the credibility of legal and regulatory standards as much as when one set of standards is applied to the big fishes, but another set of standards to the small fishes in the pond. The President of the USA is a perfect example in this regard. By blatantly ignoring for months the advice of health experts in his own country, when it comes to the use of face coverings to curb the spread of the virus, he unwittingly encouraged others to do the same.

The inconsistent application of COVID-19 related regulations in South Africa, in the case of the size and protocols of group gatherings, or of social distancing in public transport, undermines the credibility of regulations, and thus invoke a spirit of “if they can do it, why can’t I as well?”. If government, and law-enforcing agencies want to see more respect for regulations, there is a moral duty on them to ensure not only consistency across regulations, but also consistency in the application and enforcement thereof.

Irrational regulations

We are currently faced with regulations that border on the absurd. A political commentator recently remarked that while it is currently illegal to go and visit your mother, it would be perfectly legal – should you mother pass away – to get in taxi filled to 100% capacity, and attend your mother’s funeral along with 50 other persons. People tend to lose respect for regulations that seems either unfair or irrational. In the current situation there are just too many regulations that seemingly fail both the fairness and rationality test. This does not only breed contempt for those regulations that fail the test, but for COVID-19 related regulations in general. It is thus imperative for our government to recognise that the disrespect for regulations amongst citizens, which our president and members of his cabinet so publicly bemoan, is not only caused by a lack of virtue amongst citizens, but also by some unfair and irrational regulations that they themselves issued.

Plato (c. 427 – 348 B.C.), a contemporary of Socrates, argued that good people do not require laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around laws. This is a timely reminder that the cure for lawlessness, does not lie in making more laws, but in moral character. As we are approaching the peak of the Corona pandemic in South Africa, leaders from all walks of society would do well to not only appeal to other to respect the law and regulations, but also to appeal to the moral conscious of people to do the right thing in the time of the pandemic.

The influence of COVID-19 on the mental health curve

by Nicole Konstantinopoulos | Published on 26 June 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


We are currently facing more than one pandemic. Yes, COVID-19 may be getting all the attention right now, but there are other pertinent issues in our society. Some may argue that racism is an infectious disease, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement has created a ripple through societies across the globe. Gender-based violence (GBV) is at its peak in South Africa, and men need to stand together with women against this pandemic. But what about the ever-increasing mental health curve?

As many as 1 in 6 South Africans struggle with some form of mental health disorder. The most common being anxiety, substance abuse and mood disorders (such as depression), and the unfortunate close association with suicide. What’s worse is that mental health in South Africa is severely underdiagnosed and undertreated, with a certain stigma still prevalent in our society. Major organisations seem to still not take mental health as seriously as one’s physical health, even though our workplace is often a major contributor to issues like stress and anxiety. Mental health was a serious concern before COVID-19 struck. Whilst we may be moving down the levels, the pandemic is in full swing and not many have addressed how COVID-19, its effects and the potentially dire aftermath is and will continue to affect our mental health.

I am sure all of us have fantasized about being able to work from home at one point. We all tend to think of the advantages, which include not having to deal with traffic and being in the comfort of your own home. But after being thrown into the deep end, I am sure some of us are rethinking those fantasies. This is new territory for many and having to adapt so quickly has had a major impact on our mental health. Whilst some may be required to deal with the demands from spouses, children, or housemates, others may be dealing with the silence of empty homes. Not all of us may have a home office, some may not even have access to internet or a laptop, yet many were pushed into the same boat with the same expectations from employers.

Luckily, many have managed to adapt, adjust, and find new routines. However, many are suddenly, required to go back to the office now. Yes, it may sound as easy as riding a bicycle, you will find your rhythm again, but it is not the same bicycle. And with these constant changes, comes recurring waves of anxiety, each time taking a little more out of us than the last. How do we build resilience during these uncertain times and continue to perform optimally?

A big question that we need to ask is what are employers doing to help? Unfortunately, not enough. Whilst there are some examples of employers going above and beyond the call of duty, these are few and far between. Even though majority of organisations stipulate some form of “people first” statement in their values, they seem to forget about their people during a crisis. Perhaps feeling the threat and putting the bottom line ahead of the needs of their employees. This seems to follow the “profit first, morals later” sentiment, or just ticking boxes to ensure regulations are adhered to. This impacts the employee’s mental health and the employer’s reputation in the long run.

For instance, extensive regulations for returning to work and protocols to follow have been stipulated by Government and implemented by employers wanting to return to their physical places of work. But, where are the considerations for mental health, or the protocols to help those who may be struggling with a mental health-related issue. The lockdown and social distancing have interfered with individual’s normal coping mechanisms, therefore, improving accessibility to various support functions is required.

Organisations need to take a proactive approach, instead of only ticking boxes and following regulations. Ensuring employees have the necessary resources to comfortably work from home or are well-versed in the new protocols when returning to work which make them feel safer, are both essential yet simple steps employers can take. Providing a platform for educating all involved and opening the communication channels shows leadership’s investment in their employees. This could simply be through an e-mail blast focused on mental health, or a ‘well-being minute’ in staff meetings. We can’t flatten the mental health curve if the curve isn’t visible.

The support, investment and communication provided during the pandemic will be remembered long after the pandemic is over. And this ultimately may affect the trust people have in organisations. Instead of our values being lost in a time of crisis, lets rely on them to guide us through.

Reclaiming the rational middle ground

by Kris Dobie | Published on 26 June 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

It is sometimes difficult to come to grips with our angry society.  It seems social media in general – and Twitter specifically – has become a warzone annexed by people with radical views. If you spend too much time there, you can believe that the world is entirely divided into groups of angry extremists. The rational middle ground might still be there, but it is seemingly not worth retweeting.

Let’s be clear – the world is full of injustice and urgent causes.  We need an end to gender-based violence. We need people to acknowledge that black lives matter. We need people to take global warming seriously.  We need better education for all. We need corruption to stop.  The list goes on, and sometimes the sheer extent of moral calls can become overwhelming.

One would, however, anticipate that there would be broad agreement among the rational middle ground about the need for change in most, or even all of these areas. But the middle ground is seemingly retreating into silence in fear of being caught in the crossfire of vitriolic anger, inconsistency and excessive virtue signalling.

Instead of moral concerns bringing society closer together, it seems that it is causing greater polarisation and divisiveness.

There are two reasons why this is happening.

The first involves people who are sincere but working with change that is difficult and painful.

The golden rule of ethics is to treat others like you want to be treated. In simple terms it is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. However, with a world as divided as ours we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of many.

Truly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is difficult enough when you share a narrative with that person – for example, being from the same socio-economic class, race or gender.  If you share none of those commonalities it becomes a strain to even the best-intentioned of people.  It just isn’t easy.

Things used to be simpler when there was one dominant social narrative.  But that is why we have so much justified anger today.  People’s voices weren’t heard.  What we see today are the birth pains of a more just society.

The space has opened up for people to talk about their vulnerabilities.  Technology has allowed people to be followed and supported by those who share their experiences, fears or frustrations.   But the world is also change averse.  You can’t just politely suggest that change is probably a good idea. Sometimes those who scream the loudest are the ones who are heard.

So, the first reason why we see divisiveness is that we simply come from very different backgrounds, and people need to be vocal to be heard.

The second reason is that there are people who are actively trying to be divisive rather than unifying.

A very clear example is in the purposefully ineffective methods employed by political parties to ostensibly ‘bring about change’. They will very vocally assert that the opposition is the root cause of the problem, and that they are clearly all bad people. (One sure way of getting people to retreat into their corner, is by indicating that you intend to fight them.) And when it is time to vote on the matter, they feign surprise and indignation that the opposition closed ranks and voted against their issue.

The same applies to social media rants where people engage in moral posturing not to bring about change, but for purposes of personal power aggrandisement.  It seems clear that the intention in these instances is not to bring about change, but rather to do moral posturing.  If the opposition supports your issue, you can’t claim moral superiority and get more voters (or Twitter followers).

The purpose is therefore not constructive social change (i.e. moving towards a more cohesive moral position that builds out universal respect and human dignity), but to engage in divisive identity politics. Instead of building up it is breaking down.

Building a more just world requires difficult conversations and requires more of us to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others. This is enough of a challenge without those who are wilfully trying to be divisive.

While Twitter may make us believe that the world is predominantly inhabited by those who wish to divide, most of us will know from our everyday lives that the people we meet are part of the rational middle ground. This middle ground has however become increasingly marginalised. Participating in public moral discourse has become a dangerous activity only for the very brave or the very stupid. Somehow the marginalised rational middle ground needs reclaim some space.

In an effort to create a less divided world, some new divisions might be necessary.  Perhaps the time has come to divide the world into those who want to be part of constructive conversations and those that don’t. Into builders and breakers.

National Lockdown: Homo Empathicus under the gaze of the law

by Rehilwe Senatla | Published on 26 June 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Recent times have never seen a more challenging battle as the one found now between the law and the idea of doing right – as based on empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid. The Covid-19 national lockdown has seen this battle become greatly accentuated in relation to the restriction of movement.

I have seen friends struggling to access children for whom they share verbal, undocumented custody. I have witnessed a son waiting in the parking lot of a hospital as though he was an Uber driver, while his father was inside undergoing surgery. I myself could only imagine holding my father’s hand while he was being wheeled into a theatre-room 40km away. I have brokenheartedly missed funerals of loved ones because I didn’t make the cut-off of 50 attendees as per lockdown regulations. I have observed a man make a distressing appeal to the lawmakers to let him sell cooked food from his yard since he could not go out to his usual stall at the street corner. I have helplessly observed the mighty power of the law arm-wrestling the notion of doing right. As social beings with societal attachments and agreements with each other, especially in times of need, we are struggling with obeying the law (staying at home) and still being empathetic.

Never have we been so anxious of our visibility to the law as in recent times. We are found always looking over our shoulders, fearful that our daily decisions could potentially conflict with the latest regulations; and resort to actions that we hope the law will turn a blind eye to. Like a beggar, in our many varied tough circumstances, we have knelt in shame assuming postures that would humble us to the law. We have been left powerless, when all we wanted was to do good to others. As the restrictions on movement and gatherings continue, so does the distance between the two poles of empowerment and powerlessness, and equally so the tension between obeying the law and doing right, doing good – realising the extension of our moral boundaries.

It was Jean-Paul Sartre that introduced the concept of le regard, the gaze, in Being and Nothingness (1943) wherein the act of gazing at another human being creates a subjective power difference, which is felt by the gazer and the gazed. The person being gazed at is perceived as an object, and not as a human being. In our lockdown decisions, we cannot help but feel the weighty gaze of the law. The law has been afforded the privilege of surveillance, while doing right has been destabilized, left asking itself endless questions in turmoil. We are more aware of our presence and how accountable we are for the decisions or actions we take, as this might expose us as being unlawful or unethical.

The critical gaze of the other, of the law, has indeed robbed us of our freedom but, I must admit, it has also led to constructive internal changes. Being gazed at has afforded us the opportunity of being aware of ourselves, of our existence, our presence. The beggar and the giver have had a silent exchange of conflicting wills and intentions. So, while we are down on our knees terrified of, and humiliated by this gaze, we are also suddenly and fully aware of our decisions and actions. That is, the extent to which these will have an impact on social transformation, even if this is simply only to immediate associates. We bow our heads in avoidance of making contact with this gaze, with our hands held out and hoping and yearning for an empathic bond.

While the law dictates what we ought to do, ethics – from whence empathy finds a home – informs us what we should do in accordance with the social contract. The present-day clash has forced us to look at ourselves, discover our inner-selves and grasp that others matter too.

Isn’t it ironic then that the very gaze that has seemingly robbed us of our pride is the same one that has forced us to think freely and to choose, especially in relation to the other?

When rules don’t rule, ok.

by Kris Dobie | Published on 25 May 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


Today I found myself abiding by the rules and being angry at myself for doing so.

(The rules in question are of course the South African COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.)

I couldn’t help but think that my response was irrational. Either you happily go along with your own actions, or you change course. But it is not so easy for everybody.

Perhaps it is personality, or maybe it’s habit, but I find a certain comfort in going along with most rules. I believe that society is relatively well structured and abiding by the rules help us to retain the levels of stability that, if we are lucky, will take us on a positive trajectory to an even better structured society.

I discussed my discomfort with a more independently spirited friend who had just returned from dropping off an employee (who should not have been working – according to the rules). For him the decisions are quite simple. The rules are surely there to protect him from harm, and since he is also capable of rational thought on the subject, he will take decisions that do not place himself or others at risk – balanced with other rational factors. If the rules are not rational they are not worth following. As he says – “I can think for myself.”

And perhaps my own anger at my rule-following is that I am beginning to doubt whether I am thinking for myself, and whether I am just blindly following irrationality.

Following rules out of habit should in theory be a positive thing. According to Aristotle, moral virtues are principles that will lead us to living a more fulfilled, flourishing life. We learn these virtues by being educated into them through various societal forces, such as our family and our formal education. Initially living according to the virtues does not come naturally to us. But as we are taught the virtues, and practice them, we start to follow them habitually. And we find pleasure in living these virtues, because we know that they will lead to us living a better life.

One of the pre-conditions for the virtues leading to a happier, more fulfilled life, is that we should live in a just society. In other words, the rules of that society should make sense according to the principles of justice.

I know many otherwise decent people who have decided that the lockdown rules don’t make sense to them. They abide by social distancing, they wear their masks and wash their hands, but they also try to keep businesses going. For some these decisions are easier than for others.

I also know someone who is extremely law abiding and is tremendously angry at the government for forcing him to break the law to buy cigarettes. It may seem like a small thing, but for someone who has been habituated for 70 years to believe that rule-following is the way to live, it sits uncomfortably. But he will get over it. Many police officers have to enforce rules that they don’t agree with. Many simply won’t enforce those rules. It may initially be difficult, but they too will get over it.

And here is the big concern. As more and more people invariably become comfortable with breaking the rules, or not enforcing the rules, this too might become a habit. If all rules make sense, it is simple. Abide by the rules. Everyone is clear, and there follows a social compact about abiding by rules. It makes it easy for those who enforce the rules, because the social spirit supports them in doing their work, and they are seen to be contributing to a more stable society.

However, once you start making rules that are arbitrary, nonsensical, or clearly don’t lead to a more just society, it starts to show a certain disconnect between those who are making the rules, and those who are expected to follow them. Rather than government for the people by the people, it starts to indicate that leaders feel that they don’t have to explain themselves to the people. It becomes akin to a parent-child relationship. The difference is of course that parents can’t explain all their decisions because young children cannot yet understand the full complexity of life. Citizens are however different, and feeling that you don’t have to explain yourself shows how leaders view the maturity of their citizens.

As I grapple with these issues as a relatively privileged South African, I am not blind to the fact that there are many citizens to whom even our normal rules don’t contribute to a more fulfilled life. Nonetheless, it does seem that the stability of a rule-following society is necessary to move forward to a more just society.

I do hope that we will soon move to less restrictive, or at least more coherent lockdown regulations, and that we can return to a ‘normal’ relationship with rules. I am however fearful that this episode will leave lasting habits in a country that could do with more rule-following, not less.