Parliament holds government accountable, ensures public services are delivered effectively, and that public money is spent wisely. Individual elected representatives must therefore, on a daily basis, conduct themselves with high standards of ethics compatible with their roles of looking after the public interests, by holding the executive accountable.
If individual elected representatives behave corruptly, it sends a signal to the broader society that corruption is normal, acceptable and legitimate.
Unethical conduct by elected representatives - and getting away with it - undoubtedly leads to copycat behaviour by ordinary public servants.
If elected representatives behave unethically, it also erodes the credibility of Parliament and legislatures.
Ordinary citizens may lose trust not only in elected representatives, but in legislatures, and worse, with democracy itself. Regardless of cultural context, the credibility, trust and authority of legislatures rest on two key pillars: whether elected officials make decisions on the “merits of the issue and not on pressure from external sources”; and whether ordinary citizens’ belief that elected representatives will not abuse their positions of authority, decision-making and trust for selfish gain.
The challenge for many African legislatures is how to foster a high level of individual ethical conduct, behaviours and values among their elected representatives.
Many elected representatives face ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. They face competing interests: from their constituencies, political parties, personal, communities and public interest groups.
Many ethics regimes for elected representatives fail because there is no consensus over the country’s shared beliefs, values and principles about what is right or wrong; and what individual behaviours are “permitted and what are not”. This appears to be the case in South Africa also.
Yet, the South African constitution is the overriding set of shared beliefs, values and principles about what is right or wrong; and what individuals are “permitted and what they are not”.
In many new democracies, there is often not a common understanding about the interpretation of ethical rules, values and principles and behaviour by elected public representatives. This appears to be the case in South Africa also.
The current corruption tsunami involving members of Parliament and legislatures should serve as a catalyst for change, because it erodes the public trust in Parliament and legislatures.
What should be the basis of the ethical rules, principles, values and individual behaviours for members of Parliament and legislatures?
South Africa’s constitutional documents the country signed, such as the Global Taskforce on Parliamentary Ethics - of which the South African democratic national Parliament contributed - and Parliament’s own rules of procedure should form the basis of an ethical regime for elected representatives.
Collectively, these include: selflessness - acting in the public interest; integrity - not putting oneself under any financial or other obligations; objectivity - in making decisions, appointments, awarding contracts; accountability - for decisions made and submitting oneself to public scrutiny; openness - giving reasons for decisions, and making information readily available; honesty - declaring any private interests that could have influenced one’s decision-making; and exemplary public leadership.
Such an ethics regime should generally include broad ethical principles and values and commonly accepted standards of behaviour - which could also be put into a code of conduct - which individual elected representatives, of whatever ideological persuasions, should uphold in their behaviour.
Parliament and legislatures must set clear ethical rules - detailed rules of what is acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, Parliament and legislatures must then cobble together ethical regulations, which are mechanisms for enforcements and sanctions for those representatives who stray.
Regular training of members on ethical conduct is crucial. Such training must be on-going and compulsory. The ideal is that ethical conduct becomes institutionalised - it must inform everyday conduct of members of Parliament and legislatures.
It is important that members collectively and individually agree to adopt these ethical principles and values for themselves; and that their political parties, members and the public measure their performance based on whether in their individual behaviour they adhere to these.
In order to do this, there has to be wide consultation, discussion and debate - across the political party spectrum - on acceptable ethical standards of behaviour for elected representatives.
There has to be cross-party agreement over the broad ethical principles.
Importantly, the challenge is not to allow the establishment of ethical rules, values and behaviour to divide Parliament and the legislatures along party political partisan lines. There has to be cross-party consensus over ethical rules, values and behaviour.
A code of conduct must also be signed off by all political parties and individual members.
Parliaments and legislatures must also agree to sanctions to deal with individual misbehaviour.
Without ethical conduct by elected representatives, efforts to boost the efficiency of the use of public resources, slash corruption and increase public accountability will come to naught.
* Gumede is associate professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand; and author of 'Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times'.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent