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SA: We have seen this movie before, but can we change its ending?

President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is crucial for the president that he intentionally re-frame his decisions as ethical decisions and not merely business or political decisions, says the author. Picture, Karen Sandison, ANA.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. It is crucial for the president that he intentionally re-frame his decisions as ethical decisions and not merely business or political decisions, says the author. Picture, Karen Sandison, ANA.

Published Jun 29, 2022

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By ​Willie Thabe

As the grey-listing looms for a country whose promised new dawn seems to be setting before reaching midday, we wonder if there are ways in which we can recalibrate and change the potential outcomes of this trajectory.

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Even the seismic paradigm shift necessitated by multi-stakeholder capitalism that is now embraced by governments in other jurisdictions, which defines good corporate governance, whether private or public, does not seem capable of breaking old habits.

Then again, it would appear that the president has “broken down reality into concepts he never can reconstruct in its wholeness”, as philosopher William James once asserted.

​Willie Thabe is managing executive of Angavu Ethical Solutions.

If Dr Susan Liautaud, who is an expert on ethics internationally, is right that, as individuals and organisations, we should consistently ask ourselves: who we are and what we stand for, which would define our identity and communicate to others what they should expect of us, then maybe all South Africans, especially the president, should engage in this exercise.

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In the aftermath of what is now known as Phalagate (with the allegation that President Cyril Ramaphosa covered up the theft of about $4 million (R63.98 million) in foreign currency) from his Phala Phala game farm in the northern Limpopo province), I wonder about the principles which define the identity of both the president and his organisation that find his responses to these reputation-wrecking allegations acceptable.

The fairly recent ethical and financial crises around the world is a rude reminder of the contagion of individuals and organisations unethical decision but, more importantly, that these entities are not machines.

They are intricate and integrated elements in the fabric of our society.

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From single companies like Steinhoff to entire industries like the construction industry’s collusion, we have learned that a myopic focus on one area of business – such as a short-term financial profit can lead to blindness to business long-term holistic societal impact. This principle is far more accentuated in the type of leaders that govern countries.

Often, when we become anxious and overwhelmed, we develop tunnel vision and decide to focus on one objective to the exclusion of all others. This is a form of self-preservation which seem to have engulfed the president’s outlook.

It is crucial for the president that he intentionally re-frame his decisions as ethical decisions and not merely "business" or "political" decisions. It is easy to see how the people who mishandled the resources to relieve the impact of Covid-19 might have responded differently to the crisis if they had forced themselves to think about it as an ethical issue rather than a mere financial issue.

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If ambiguity is the enemy of integrity - as Airbnb's chief ethics officer, Robert Chesnut, who has written books on the subject and has pointed out - then the president cannot hesitate over ethical dilemmas, pleading complexity or the proverbial I will co-operate with the legal authorities.

It would be useful for him to give information that counters the allegations in a credible way. Chestnut also asserts that without conviction, integrity ceases to exist. The president’s responses do not seem to come from conviction. They bear all the hallmarks of a person who is tactically preparing for a legal showdown.

The president would be uncomfortably aware of the fact that the world is teeming with countless examples of organisations, institutions, and one-man empires that have either toppled or been irreparably condemned because of unethical practices.

Even his initial claim, which declared good governance and fighting corruption as the theme for his presidency, seems to have lost its fervour. Billy Joel’s “I’m just an innocent man” posited at the initiation of this presidency sounds hollow in the light of the latest allegations. Recent comments by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo seem to belie these claims.

Can we trust the integrity of the state where norms of illegality that undermine the constitution and criminal law seem pervasive? What are the basic norms - standards or patterns of behaviour expected of South Africans in the current context? What certainty of living can be derived based on law and established practices under your administration?

While I also do not want to assume a holier-than-thou perspective in these comments and pretend to be the adjudicator of personal decisions on what is right or wrong in the abstract, the risk to our country is sufficient for me to pen my two cents worth.

As Chestnut states in his book:“Integrity, regrettably, is a fragile human attribute, even for people who value it”. Mr President, it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish where the impetus for tackling corruption will come from.

Under current circumstances, you cannot possibly lift yourself above the parapet of the counter-values established in the previous administration that effectively created a parallel state. The mountains of allegations levelled against you need clear and unequivocal responses.

The post-truth response you offered to the absolutely reputation wrecking allegations is symptomatic of compromised truth that is so common among politicians across the globe. The answer does not address the question being asked, the response that says: “I’ve never stolen money from anywhere” – is not a valid response.

In the words of Socrates: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” Is the answer you provided what you stand for or what you would desire to appear?

A more telling question from an ethical point of view – taking the issue away from the allegations to what will remain when the dust has long settled – How would you want to be remembered?

Without being unduly pessimistic and all things being considered, we are on the edges of kleptocracy and in dire need of ethical leadership that is beyond reproach. The president, as the leader of the Republic and the organisation he leads, is not able to eradicate the levels of corruption and establish a clean governance structure.

In the words of Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, poet and critic: “Things are falling apart, and the centre cannot hold”, and as South Africans, we are wondering if this is the sunset of the promised dawn or the “Thuma Mina”, message was indeed, as mamaKhawula put it in parliament, had no other intention, but continued malfeasance.

We are led to ask the question - we have seen this movie before, but can we change its ending? Not until there is a fundamental change in the governing structures and the separation of powers is reappraised by leadership practices and those who lead are uncompromisingly imbued with intentional integrity and have the moral standing to can lead without being dragged by allegations of their own wrongdoing.

​Willie Thabe is managing executive of Angavu Ethical Solutions.

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