“Cry the beloved country” are the words that come to mind for so many after the looting and mayhem that we have witnessed and many have experienced. But, sadly, tears will not fix the problems underlying this violence or prevent future unrest. However, if we can learn from this in a way that provides guidance and support going forward, that would help.

The ethical focus does not ignore important social and political issues that have been highlighted. Inequality, poverty and unemployment are critical social issues. Politically the fallacy of the idiom “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” was exposed: ‘enemies’ who are entrusted with positions of power and influence are a recipe for disaster, not for progress and unity.

However, ethics is core to these events, not only because of the scale and scope of such wanton breaches of the law and morality, but also because of the consequences. As to the lessons, failure can often be a better teacher than success. It can allow us to recognise blind spots and to explore more clearly what we should and should not do in future.


Leadership has always been a primary ethical driver. But this is not limited to ‘good’ leaders. Leaders have the capacity to influence their followers and other audiences either positively or negatively, as ethical role models or instigators of illegal and unethical conduct. The latter prevailed during our week of unrest.

Preceding these events we have had on-going revelations about the leaders who enabled State Capture. Despite this representing looting on a grand scale, there have been few negative consequences for any of the political leaders and politically connected leaders accused of involvement. Thus the question that CNN’s Richard Quest posed to Bruce Whitfield in January 2020 relative to State Capture remains apt: "How many people have gone to prison so far?”. The lesson here is that the absence of accountability, in effect, serves to endorse unethical leadership action.

The consequent sense of impunity allows the conduct that has so deeply damaged our country to be reframed as ‘successfully leveraging opportunities’. The mall looters could well claim that they were only doing what State Capture leaders have done, except on a much smaller scale individually.

The question to be answered as an individual, as a family member, as part of the community and as a citizen is what the impact of your leadership is.


Laws, rules and regulations are another key driver of ethics. The boundaries they establish define what conduct is undesirable and unacceptable, and compliance with laws, rules and regulations is fundamental to what constitutes being ethical.

But the law was openly flouted during the unrest, with mall looters rarely even making an attempt to evade media cameras. If there are no consequences for the looters and the instigators, if this is not treated as being totally unacceptable, the negative conclusion can grow that rules can be broken by some people some of the time.

The other important ethical feature of rule-based mechanisms that is not often well recognised is their role as protectors of moral values. For example, legislation or a company policy on bribery and corruption is not only a way to hold those to account who break those prescripts. Crucially, it is also a mechanism to uphold the values of honesty and integrity. Therefore, when laws and rules are ignored, the cost includes that moral values such as honesty, fairness, respect and responsibility are undermined.

The rule of law – the principle that no person is above the law – is fundamental to an ethical culture, be that in an organisation or a country. But when it appears that all people, institutions or entities are not equally accountable to the law, that the law is not equally enforced, or that justice is not delivered timeously, the ethical erosion is significant.


A trap to be avoided relative to the looters (and others) is not to succumb to the easy categorisation of people as either ethical or unethical. In reality, it is more nuanced and more complicated.

Certainly, there are those who can be considered ‘goodies’ who are ethical and would always stand up for what is good and right. There are also ’baddies’ who intentionally perpetrate illegal and unethical acts or actively seek out opportunities for misconduct.

But there is also a middle group who can be influenced towards what is right or what is wrong. Crucial to influencing this group is the understanding that ethical choice precedes action and that the choice – good, bad, right or wrong – directly shapes the nature of the action. In this regard, although the instigators of the looting and unrest issued a call to action, each individual was able to make a decision as to whether to respond to that call or not. There are, of course, a myriad of factors that would influence that decision – including tough factors like poverty and desperation – but only in circumstances of coercion is the individual denied that choice.

The ethical lesson in this instance is not merely to emphasise the accountability of each individual who took part in the looting and anarchy. It is also to highlight that ethics management needs to recognise this middle group that may be ethically ambivalent and specifically needs to include interventions both to dissuade people from doing the wrong thing and to encourage people to do the right thing.


A key question centres on who bears the cost of this week of mayhem. Definitions of what constitute victimless crimes may vary in different parts of the world, but it certainly does not apply in this case. Rather, there is a lesson in how widely the cost of ethical failure is shared, extending way beyond any intended victims.

Those who lost their lives paid the ultimate price. Obvious parties who were negatively affected are those who lost their property and their livelihoods. Stakeholders such as the insurer, shareholders and suppliers will be affected.

The mall communities and customers, including looters, are affected by their lack of access to conveniently located shopping, coupled to the extra cost of having to shop further from home. So too have many people and communities had their sense of safety and security eroded.

The country has also suffered massive damage. Like an organisation, a country has a reputation that indicates its level of ethical capital. Countries with a strong ethical reputation enjoy the benefits of high levels of ethical capital, evidenced in factors like social justice and business and investor confidence. However, South Africa’s reputation has slipped from the moral high of the Rainbow Nation post the 1994 elections into State Capture, junk status and ongoing poor results via indicators like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Our ethical capital has been sorely depleted, and these incidents have further reduced it.


Such massive lawlessness should prompt a serious re-examination of our stance on ethics. How ethics is viewed, by individuals or organisations, makes a huge difference.

Can ethics be dismissed as a national illusion on the basis of the many ethical breaches that have occurred? Should ethics be regarded as a luxury: as something that would be great to have, but which, in the current tough environment, is just not prioritised? Or is ethics considered to be a necessity: as essential for creating an ethical culture that respects moral values and upholds laws? These three perspectives result in very different outcomes, of which only the last option is positive for the future ethical health of our country and its organisations and institutions.

In conclusion, therefore, the impact of the unrest and looting will be negative on all fronts unless we learn from this and take meaningful action to strengthen our moral compass.

© Cynthia Schoeman, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2021