The momentous political changes that took place in South Africa in February 2018 have been widely welcomed as heralding a “new dawn” offering real hope for a better future. Central to this is the change from the corruption that characterised ex-President Zuma’s term of office to President Ramaphosa’s commitment to clean government. Clearly this commitment needs to be accompanied by decisive and meaningful action.

What is also needed to ensure the realisation of an ethical future is that the ethical lessons from this period are recognised and remembered. While this of course applies to government, it is equally applicable to the corporate sector that has also been subject to numerous high-profile scandals.


South Africa’s decline during ex-President Zuma’s tenure had multiple indicators of his negative impact on the country and its people and institutions. A declining economy relegated to junk status, lower employment, and increased corruption and looting of the State and State Owned Entities are some of the features. While there were good, ethical people who tried to stem the ethical slide, most of them were removed from their positions for standing in the way of the unethical goals of those in power.

The effect of this nine year reign has left a country in despair and should serve as a powerful ethical lesson, namely that ethical leadership is imperative: that the tone at the top really does matter. The distinction is that the ethical leader accepts his or her role as promoting the greater good, constantly acts as a good role model, and does not lead for self or self-enrichment but rather commits to uplifting and empowering others.


Setting the agenda for his presidency in his maiden State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Ramaphosa started by acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela – which he used to express the following: "Guided by his example, we will use this year to reinforce our commitment to ethical behaviour and ethical leadership."

But articulating a vision for the future, however noble or worthy, is only the start of the process of realising the desired outcome. It will require a concerted effort to clean up the mess of State Capture (and, hopefully, the recently announced Cabinet changes will support the start of those changes).

Therefore the second lesson, which applies to the current political situation as well as any business, is the imperative to combine vision with the necessary action. This is particularly well stated by Joel Barker, the American futurist, author and lecturer: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”


Giving effect to a new vision within an organisation is often driven via a focus on changing the organisation’s culture to align it with the new vision or purpose. This is a big task in an organisation, which becomes positively daunting when the goal is to build an ethical culture across the whole of government and all State Owned Companies. Yet this is critical, not least to give credibility to the President’s SONA appeal to South Africa to leave behind “the era of diminishing trust in public institutions and weakened confidence in leaders”.

The third lesson is that a really big task cannot be achieved by one leader alone, no matter how committed he or she may be. Support is essential. Building a reliable team is imperative, as is a focus on building capacity that is both ethical and effective.

In the case of South Africa’s political situation, this support is not limited to the public sector. Government will need the wholehearted support of business. This can entail a variety of initiatives but the vital contribution is for the private sector to increase its focus on and commitment to building an ethical culture within their organisations.

The typical corporate response of acting against misconduct such as fraud and corruption remains essential. But consider the following analogue to support further ethical action: If you wanted to increase a company’s profit, what two major factors you would turn to? The answer, of course, would be to decrease costs and/or increase revenue. The analogue applies to ethics and the pursuit of an ethical culture in that you need to focus on reducing unethical behaviour and you need to focus on building ethics and strengthening values.


Transitioning from a bad to a better situation almost always entails some tough decisions. In the case of South Africa, the easier part of this is ensuring that unethical practices are not continued. Pertinent examples, among many others, are patronage, nepotism and cronyism, all of which are often associated with unethical leadership. The leader’s power to control appointments to office and the right to dispense privileges are the obvious mechanisms that are used to reward and retain loyalty. In its place, ethics and effectiveness should be the future standard for appointments and advancement.

Decisions become tougher when it comes to those currently in office. If the vision for the country or a company is ethical governance, it cannot include tainted officials or executives. The Moral Regeneration Movement that was initiated in June 1997 by former President Nelson Mandela cannot be re-launched if it includes those who aided or benefited from corruption and State Capture.

When former culprits claim a ‘change of heart’ (after a lengthy period of supporting an unethical situation), it is fair to question whether this simply amounts to an act of political expediency. Similarly we should be alert to any instances of moral licensing, a phenomenon in terms of which a good act is used a justification to balance out a bad one. Thus, for example, being philanthropic does not diminish culpability for unethical and illegal behaviour.

The fourth ethical lesson is thus that leaders need to give visible effect to their commitments by making – and being seen to make – the necessary tough decisions. It amount to having the courage of your convictions, whereby you have the confidence to do what is right, even though others may not agree or approve.


When a country or an organisation faces major ethical challenges there are those who will ‘go with the flow’, succumbing to the slippery slope and even collaborating with wrong-doers for their own benefit. There are also those who will stand up for what is right, often at great personal cost, and their contribution is invaluable.

The ethical lesson in this instance is that we do not only focus on convicting and punishing those who did wrong. The important lesson is that recognition and credit are given to those who contributed to a more ethical outcome. The following deserve mention: our judiciary, our former Public Protector, two previous Finance Ministers, our press, especially investigative journalists like Jacques Pauw and those at amaBhungane and Scoprpio, and many civil society organisations such as the Helen Suzman Foundation, Section 27, Corruption Watch and OUTA (among others). Illustrating the value of their contribution is the Helen Suzman Foundation’s current action against the Bank of Baroda under the Promotion and Access to Information Act to get the bank accounts for the Gupta brothers, their associates including Duduzane Zuma, the former Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown and numerous Gupta companies.

Supporting the importance of the press and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI 2017) indicates that countries with the least protection for press and NGOs also tend to have the worst rates of public sector corruption. The Index’s primary recommendations therefore centre on activists and media as being vital to combatting corruption.

The challenge going forward will be whether we, as a country and within our organisations, adopt these ethical lessons. Deflecting the lessons on the basis that the ethical transgressions of the past were not ours is not helpful. Instead we should aspire to the wisdom that allows us to learn from the misdemeanours of others. This is imperative to get past the despair that typified the Zuma era and to build on the current hope as a platform to build trust in our leaders and our public and private sector organisations.

By Cynthia Schoeman