Commentary: Nkandla, negative role models and sycophantic followers

To the extent that we can learn from what’s wrong and unethical as much as we can from what’s good (and sometimes more), the ethical lessons arising from the Nkandla saga deserve our attention.

The negative role model that President Zuma set by disregarding the legally binding instructions of the Public Protector as regards non-security improvement to Nkandla has damaged the moral fibre of our country. And this damage is made even more severe by the President’s long-standing attempts to undermine the Public Protector and her report, Secure in Comfort. What this incident highlights is that when faced with a conflict between the law and personal interest, the President chose personal interest. The protection of personal benefit and gain was seen to be paramount.

The message this sends to all those who are aware of the situation adds to the negative impact. How do leaders correct this message in their workplaces and in communities when it stems from the behaviour of the first citizen? Many people will still strive to do the right thing and to grow and promote ethics despite such debacles. For many others though the high-profile nature of the saga involving the President and Nkandla risks fuelling the slippery slope of non-compliance. The potential outcome is not only wider-spread fraud and corruption. We need to recognise that it can also fuel a broad-based disregard for the law, whether that be for traffic regulations or in the form of petty crime.

This incident has a further negative element that warrants being examined, namely that so many senior Ministers supported the President throughout his extended campaign to secure his personal comfort. This behaviour echoes the topic of an article in our previous newsletter that looked at the difficulty that arises when unethical behaviour is an instruction from a superior. But, for these senior Ministers, was this an instruction or was it a choice? Does protecting their jobs justify not only turning a blind eye to unethical conduct, but also actively supporting such behaviour? Did their fear about the stability of their positions and status impact their commitment to ethics? Did they choose to forget that a better, stronger example is expected of those few who are elected to such high office and carry the responsibility for running our country? The answer echoes the core problem associated with Nkandla – that the pursuit of the benefits of being a favoured colleague and supporter was their primary driver.

On the issue of accountability, a cornerstone of sound ethics and a bastion against misconduct, Parliament itself is being called into question. Prof Pierre de Vos, the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at UCT and renowned scholar in the area of constitutional law, stated in a News24 report that, based on the Constitutional Court hearings, it appears Parliament is not doing what the Constitution requires it to do. He added that “Parliament doesn’t have a good understanding of its role to hold the executive accountable. Some of it might have to do with their ignorance, some to do with MPs' insecurities because their positions are dependent on the very same President they have to hold accountable.”

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi was quoted as saying that “It is very clear that the integrity of our democratic institution is being sacrificed on the altar of sycophancy in defence of interest that has very little to do with enhancing the democratic dispensation.”

The negative ethical lessons are very clear. The extent to which such negativity has permeated our society is evident in the annual stats from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The 2015 global survey of perceived public sector corruption scored South Africa only 44 out of 100, in other words solidly in the lower, less ethical half of the scale. (And this score has been pretty constant over the last few years: 2012 = 43/100; 2013 = 42/100 and 2014 = 44/100.)

But what can be done going forward? Rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’, a good place to start would be the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 and increasing the support for the Public Protector. Chapter 14 of the NDP 2030 specifically addresses fighting corruption. This was intended to be acted upon, not to become a theoretical publication that just collects dust.

In the same vein, the office of the Public Protector, as a key Chapter Nine institution that performs a critical function in protecting and supporting democracy and upholding ethics in South Africa, needs support. This is especially relevant since Thuli Madonsela ends her term of office on 19 October 2016. Corruption Watch have launched a noteworthy public awareness and mobilisation campaign, Bua Mzansi, to this end. Finally, as always, it requires that we all strive to be ethical advocates in all the forums in which we exert influence.

Finally, as always, it requires that we all strive to be ethical advocates in all the forums in which we exert influence

by Cynthia Schoeman