The widespread corruption and fraud are a constant reminder that elements that serve as indicators for ethical behaviour today can easily be rendered irrelevant tomorrow.
This can be attributed to the fact that ethics in nature are akin to an individual. They represent a person’s belief regarding what’s wrong or right and directly affect what society expects of them. This affects behaviour as it responds to expectations, however the concept of Ethical Leadership Theory is one that is not confined to the borders of South Africa and their cultures.
Ethics are to be held to a global standard. This is tricky considering that ethics are a derivative of approved or acceptable societal norms or values of a particular historical conjuncture.
It is challenging enough to develop ethics that adequately cater for the different cultures that reside in South Africa and a global perspective, though necessary, exacerbates this.
South Africa is in a critical phase and citizens have high expectations of ethical behaviour from their leaders.
Escaping poverty is of utmost importance but the price of passage out of poverty should not be negating principles of ethical leadership.
Differentiating between a leader and leadership is imperative at this point because a leader represents a position in an organisational hierarchy or group, while leadership is a legitimate power-induced process of influence. This means ethical leadership is not just self-serving individuals, but aims at influencing followers to adopt certain codes of behaviour.
Ethical leadership is required at different hierarchies, in national, public and private institutions. Adopting qualities that others in society can emulate and relate to is a standing principle. An ethical leader will possess the following qualities: high regard for the rule of law and the constitution, an espousing of values of “ubuntu” and accountability, while remaining honest and courageous.
Integrity is a fundamental ingredient in ethical leadership as it steers an individual beyond personal needs and allows them to behave in a manner that advances the needs of the collective.
Upon his appointment as the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa undertook a commitment to take the nation on a new trajectory of a “New Dawn”, ushering in hope to turn the tide on corrupt practices in the government - a process underpinned by the principle of consequence management by all transgressors.
For public servants, ethical leadership is especially important as Chapter 10 of the Constitution sets out values and principles which public servants are expected to abide by. These include high professional ethics fostering transparency and accountability.
The current scourge of unethical leadership is brought to bear in the public service where disclosures of financial interests by senior management remain a serious indictment - the highest recorded compliance to date was an 87% during the 2006/2007 financial year.
Lapses of ethical behaviour are not limited to the public sector; private sector companies and other institutions are also haemorrhaging in this regard. The post-2010 World Cup construction collusion by private sector companies unearthed by the Competition Commission and many other such cases pertaining to price-fixing affirm the widespread challenge of malfeasance.
The plight for ethical leadership remains a challenging one as it is subjected to rapid cultural changes, especially in South Africa, and these changes can either serve as de-emphasizers or motivators of ethics.
One constant imperative is that failure to deal with unethical behaviour influences society in what they deem acceptable, and that is the challenge the country is facing.
Key de-emphasisers can be attributed to the legacy of apartheid as it has contributed to the high levels of poverty and inequality experienced in the present day. African culture continues to be under siege and globalisation does little to assist in this regard, with the influx of people into the country influencing ethical norms and values.
The inscription on the grave of the late Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe - “True leadership demands a complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character and fearlessness, and above all, a consuming love for ones people” - should serve as an felicitous deterrent to “comprador bourgeoisie”, which has given rise to the blatant looting of state coffers and an erosion of consciousness in our leaders.
Our leaders are faced with ethical dilemmas with prevailing cultures that include “its our turn to eat” and “we were not in the struggle to be poor”.
These are eroding our country further as leaders fail to maintain and enforce the rule of law. A voice of reason in these trying times comes in the form of Professor Kwandiwe Kondlo, who emphasises the importance of the conscious and consciousness in leadership. A leader should never be void of these two.
For the situation to change, a series of reforms and interventions need to be undertaken. They can begin by universities/the National School of Government offering integrated and separate ethics courses, making it compulsory as part of the employment process in the public service to take an oath of service and pledge to uphold the constitutional values and principles.
Recently the absence of ethical and moral leadership in the politics of our country has led to tragedies such as the Life Esidimeni debacle that has left an indelible mark in the human rights record of the post-democratic administration.
This has brought into sharp focus the urgent need to review the country’s ethics and standards broadly, with the health sector’s bioethics as a classical case. According to the health ombudsman’s report, the bioethics governing the health sector were last reviewed 50 years ago; they are not in line with the new dispensation’s human rights based the Constitution.
The setting up of an ethical ombudsman could play a critical role in fostering ethical leadership and begin to prescribe standardised punitive measures. These will assist in ensuring that in both public and private institutions a culture of impunity is not captivated. Ethics committees at the workplace can operate as a go-to source and should be accessible to all individuals irrespective of their positions.
Our leaders play a crucial role in the type of country we live in - and we should play an active role in ensuring that they place the needs of South Africa ahead of their own.
Sizani is the chairperson of the Public Service Commission