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By Cynthia Schoeman
First published on Ethics Monitor

In April 2017, I wrote under the title “Unethical leadership – the slide from the rainbow nation to junk status” that our country’s history should represent a wonderful story of the triumph of ethics. After centuries of oppression, South Africa’s transition to a constitutional democracy represented a massive moral shift which should have had a positive cascading effect.

However, the various commissions of inquiry set up by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 to uncover malfeasance and the abuse of state resources continue to paint a very different picture: we are in dire ethical straits.

What is noteworthy in the evidence that has emerged from the commissions of inquiry – notably from the state capture commission – is that private companies have played an equally destructive role in the plunder, whether in being a party to the corruption or, in the case of many professional services, in facilitating the corruption.

The underlying issue is not only a failure of ethics but, more importantly, an abuse of the ethics of power. The power and authority vested in a leader is ethical when it is used for the benefit of all affected stakeholders (such as citizens) and it promotes and protects their development and wellbeing. But, when leadership power is used tor self-enrichment and self-interest and to pursue corrupt ends, it amounts to a gross abuse of power. And for all the leaders’ gains, the cost is largely borne by those who can least afford it, whether via the absence of proper schooling with textbooks provided timeously, effective medical care at state clinics and hospitals, or the provision of clean water. (Let’s not even mention electricity!)

What is clear is that immediate and bold corrective action is required by both the state and the private sector. While the president’s new term of office brings with it a commitment to addressing corruption, real change rests on a much wider circumference of people. This begs the question: what are corporates actually doing?

Organisations should recognise that ethics includes speaking up for what is right via all the platforms they have access to and relative to all those to whom they are connected. Silence never solves breaches of ethics. Further, in light of the widespread linkages between the public and private sector in perpetuating malfeasance, claiming that the present state of affairs falls exclusively on government’s shoulders is neither a sound excuse nor plausible reason.

Put simply, there is an ethical obligation on every single corporate in South Africa to make a contribution to uplifting our country’s ethical status.

“Now is the time for Corporate South Africa to stand up and be an ethics activist.”
Cynthia Schoeman, Ethics Monitor CEO

Corruption, as a particular problem, can be reduced by business. The fact that corruption rests on two parties – the person offering the bribe or facilitating the ‘commission’ and the person accepting the bribe or other undue reward – means that it can be stopped if one party refuses to participate. This warrants that ethics is explicitly recognised by corporates as a strategic goal or core value. In the absence of ethics enjoying such high-profile recognition, it risks being overridden by operational or other demands.

Organisations can also make a noteworthy contribution to building an ethical bulwark for the country’s future by increasing the level of ethical awareness among their employees and stakeholders. This should, however, not simply entail telling them what’s right and wrong: people already know this. Rather organisations should build a better understanding of the concomitant responsibilities of ethics so as to foster more ethical choices and behaviour and, ultimately, a greater commitment to ethics.

The benefits for the organisation are obvious, not least in terms of a stronger ethical culture and strengthened stakeholder relationships. However, the real gain is far greater. We recognise the C3 effect where, for every employee or stakeholder who is ethically positively influenced there is a triple benefit: for the company, for the person’s community and, with each person’s contribution, for the country.

What I wrote in conclusion in 2017 applies even more so today: we must not succumb to ethical inertia at this stage of our country’s remarkable history. Now is the time to remember the strength and resilience of the many activists who fought for our country’s freedom. Their legacy warrants that we too find the courage and commitment to stand up for what’s ethical, even if it carries a cost. Now is the time for Corporate South Africa to stand up and be an ethics activist.