Johannesburg - Oupa Magashula is a hero for some of us. He is now the former boss of the SA Revenue Service, who resigned after he was found to have placed Sars’s credibility at risk in a potential job-for-pals scandal. One prominent businessman tweeted: “#oupamagashula I salute your unprecedented principled decision.” Such praise is disturbing in a society where wrongdoing has become systemic.
We are so corruption-tired that the exceptional resignation becomes an act of moral virtue. It is worth unpacking why this praise is inappropriate.
First, we must accept that unethical behaviour is as bad as, and often worse than, illegal behaviour.
Many civil servants wrongly think they should only try to stay out of jail. That is not the right bar for serving the public well.
All public servants need to strive both to comply with the laws of the land, and also with ethical rules and principles aimed at ensuring the consistent delivery of decent services to the millions of people reliant on the state.
So the first reason why praising Magashula is shocking is that such praise and salutation simply show that many of us are not shocked by unethical behaviour. We have become morally numb.
Only a criminal conviction stands a chance of shocking us.
And even then there are no guarantees, as we saw when politician Tony Yengeni was carried on his comrades’ shoulders as he reported to prison.
I hope none of us would want to argue that ethical codes are optional. But if ethical rules are compulsory to comply with, then why are some of us even searching for reasons to salute Magashula?
Second, I have seen some argue that “the context” matters.
They mean that there are worse sinners who have actually been found guilty of corruption involving millions of rand.
Many of these bigger ethical villains are not punished and cannot even spell “resign”.
In “the context” of that reality, Magashula’s resignation, some conclude, is deserving of praise.
This ethical reasoning is fuzzy too, I’m afraid.
It’s a bit like me being accused of cheating on my partner and then, when evidence emerges that I behaved unethically, I say: “Babe, I will walk away from our relationship because I have ruined our reputation”, and then getting plenty of SMSes and tweets congratulating me: “I salute you, Eusebius for walking away! Many men who do worse than you, who rape or kill their partners, can learn from you.”
No, no, no: evidence of systemic “worse” behaviour doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to make me a hero.
Making me a hero means you’re conceding that we’ve lowered our expectations of decent behaviour from one another.
Why should we use tough moral standards only once there is a smaller volume of wrongdoing in our society?
This is particularly self-defeating if we reflect on the link between seemingly petty wrongdoing and grand-scale wrongdoing.
If we don’t nip smaller examples in the bud by publicly shaming the individuals, then we send the inappropriate message to civil servants that they can do wrong “provided it doesn’t involve millions”. That can’t be right. It means the worst ethical sinners have won a big (im)moral victory.
They made us change our moral standards to accommodate their corrupt ways.
Lastly, I urge the public to both listen to the audiotape of the conversation that led to Magashula’s fall and to read the concise 30-page investigative report written by retired judge Zak Yacoob. They are widely available on the internet.
The reason is instructive: many who praise Magashula do so out of an “ag shame” intuition. It isn’t based on the established facts, and the weight of the assessment of the issues that the investigative team has written about.
This willingness to bat for Magashula without the full facts at hand is also a manifestation of just how wayward our ethical reasoning can be.
We need to think more critically about ethical issues and pay careful attention to the facts.
If I was the education minister, I would make the systematic teaching of ethics and moral philosophy compulsory in schools and at tertiary level.
The ability to pay ethical attention to a case can be taught. We think, wrongly, it is intuitive. It is clear from the Yacoob report, for example, that Magashula was less than frank, gave weak evidence, changed his tune and, in the opinion of Justice Yacoob, deserves a “full-blown internal disciplinary hearing” if he doesn’t accept the “sanction” he deserved.
The committee was hamstrung by not having the powers to cross-examine and to compel many others to appear before it.
Now: Would you dare not to resign and risk a full investigation with the possibility of cross-examination and more evidence-gathering beyond this one case?
Now ask yourself again: Is Oupa Magashula a hero or an anti-hero?
* Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He also hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM 98.7
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.