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Ethical Leadership in SA

Author: Professor Michelle V Esau

Ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s unveiling of his new cabinet EMS Dean, Professor Michelle Esau, calls for ethical leadership. 

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(Published - 27 May 2019)

The advent of democracy in 1994 filled millions of South Africans with hope for a new future – a future that encompassed equality of rights, access to jobs, economic growth and a general reduction in the chasm between the haves and the have nots.

However, 25 years into democracy, it seems that there has been no significant change. In fact, the reality suggests that things have progressively worsened. The recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey, from Statistics South Africa, reflects an increase in unemployment in general at 27.6%, and in particular, youth unemployment at an all-time high at 55.2%.

Much of the blame can be attributed to poor leadership. Under the Zuma administration, the country experienced instability in key sectors intended to stimulate economic growth and employment. The recent Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Lecture Series on Integrity and Leadership, hosted by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape, posed pertinent questions on the state of ethical leadership in our country.

The keynote address, delivered by former Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, brought a number of thought-provoking issues facing the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn to the fore.

Among other issues, she expounded on what ethical leadership looks like, the roles and responsibilities of new Members of Parliament (MPs), what the President should take into account when appointing his Cabinet, and the importance of tangibly dealing with the problem of poverty and inequality.

For example, in the public enterprises domain, Eskom and SAA have invariably been faced with leadership instability, increasing debt and tensions between internal and external stakeholders. Under the leadership of the former Commissioner, Tom Moyane, the South African Revenue Services (SARS), formerly regarded as exceptionally efficient and effective, has lost key figures that drove its success. And several commissions of inquiry, at a huge cost to the taxpayer, have been established in recent months to root out the good from the bad, since the “weeds have been allowed to grow alongside the wheat” for far too long.

While various regulatory frameworks refer to the integrity of leadership, either explicitly or implicitly, the evidence emerging through testimonies given at the various commissions suggests that leaders of integrity are in short supply. This context raises many questions about the state of ethical leadership in South Africa. According to Professor Madonsela, ethical leadership refers to a composite of attributes that include the most competent, trustworthy and least selfish.

However, when considering the past leadership of many state owned enterprises in the country, these attributes appear to have been non-existent.

Ethical leadership is a two-dimensional concept that applies at both the individual and organisational level. In the case of the former, ethical leadership is illuminated through how someone applies values, beliefs and standards to everyday situations and dilemmas they may face.

On the other hand, organisational ethics can be perceived through how an organisation responds in the political, social, economic and technological sectors. For example, a political organisation such as the ANC is viewed as either behaving ethically or unethically, depending on the extent to which it complies with its constitution and related regulatory frameworks.

Corporate organisations in turn are governed by the Companies Act, King IV on Corporate Governance, and the Competition Commission of South Africa, among others. In fact, King IV specifically refers to leadership, ethics and corporate citizenship.

But what does this really mean within the context that we find ourselves in? How does one reconcile individual and organisational ethics when faced with conflicting values, beliefs and standards? How does an organisation consider the ethics of competition when a natural resource such as water is in short supply? In the case of the former, you really have little choice but to apply the organisational ethics, unless you don’t mind losing your party membership, which may have “bread and butter” consequences. In the case of the latter, suppliers of bottled water in the drought-stricken Western Cape increased their prices and exploited the problem to maximise profits.

What about issues related to access to information, individual rights to privacy and the unparalleled pace of technology? On an almost daily basis, cold callers bombard unsuspecting potential customers with automated SMS messages or calls from companies trying to sell one thing or another.

Addressing the problem of unethical leadership in organisations is a difficult one. It entails transforming how we do business, raising awareness and changing mindsets. When recruiting and selecting for positions, we need to seek out individuals who are astutely aware of the consequences of behaviours on others and themselves, and are intensely reflective of their own behaviours. We need to seek out individuals who will pursue what is right, regardless of the cost.

It is about changing how we think about the right-fit individual for the job. Traditionally, we tend to focus on the criteria of qualifications, years of experience and sector knowledge. It is time that we include the attribute of ethics or integrity as a criterion in our job advertisements, as we do employment equity. As interview panelists, we need to start probing the ethical dilemmas that candidates applying for jobs across the spectrum have faced in the past - and how they’ve dealt with these - as a way of gauging their ethical competence. This practice should be extended beyond the security and intelligence sectors.

It is also time that key stakeholders start to collaborate to address the problem of ethical leadership. Government, corporates, universities and community-based organisations have a responsibility to influence and lead the mantra that we demand ethical leadership.

Universities, for example, should incorporate ethics as part of their mandatory offerings across qualifications. The private sector and government should provide ongoing workshops and seminars on ethical leadership as part of their continuous professional development, and religious bodies should contextualise teachings within the everyday realities facing society.

All is not lost, however. The hope that inspired millions of black South Africans to spend hours waiting to cast their vote for the very first time in 1994, is the hope we must continue to hold onto, believing that, with the right people, South Africa will be a better place for all. Collectively, people who use their knowledge, experience, qualifications and ethical judgement will find solutions and allocate resources accordingly, to address inequality and poverty effectively.

Professor Esau is the Dean of the Faculty of Economic Management and Sciences at the University of the Western Cape.

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