You will be assimilated
25 July 2014 08:35 (South Africa)
Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys

Our leaders' confused moral compass

  • Johann Redelinghuys
Our leaders in South Africa do not hold the sole mandate for moral confusion among the nations, but they do seem to fall about somewhat when having to follow a standard. Is it possible that they believe their positions of power and influence entitle them to suspend the law and that they are fully allowed to claim extraordinary benefits? Is it even possible that they genuinely don’t know right from wrong, and that they are trapped in some misguided, stupefying innocence?

This is not as bizarre as it may sound. The disconcerting number of leaders who these days, when confronted with their corrupt conduct, protest vehemently, may lead us to believe that they don’t know the law and that they genuinely believe themselves to be innocent.

When President Zuma is challenged by Lidiwe Mazibuko to explain the expenditure at Nkandla, he denies wrongdoing and insists that all is above board. His plaintive cry is that he deserves “respect”. There is a sense here that this is not a showpiece and that he deeply feels unfairly attacked. He claims that he and his family have paid for Nkandla, and that it was the government that forced him to have the costly “security measures”. He is the victim, not the crook.  

The fact that he defends himself to the extent that he does, and that those close to him see his emotional reaction, makes one wonder if he doesn’t really believe that he is right. Is it not the president’s prerogative to have some indulgence to support his efforts and the energy he invests to do his job for the country? As the president he presumably feels himself to be, if not completely above the law, then at least a little on the other side of it. 

There is much being written and commented on these days about narcissistic leaders and people in top positions who succumb to the thrills of power. They thrive on the risk and the charge they can get from putting themselves beyond the reach of society’s controls. 

When we research the litany of what we believe to be Mr Zuma’s unethical doings, from the early accusations of rape and the corrupt favouring of people like Shabir Shaik to the many subsequent abuses of the law, what do we find? We see a man who seems mostly oblivious to proper standards of conduct and ethical behaviour. When confronted, he seems genuinely ignorant. Remember how he countered the accusation of the rape of an HIV-infected family friend with the answer that he had taken “ a shower”? We all laughed at the time and couldn’t believe that someone could be so ill-informed and ignorant. 

If ignorance and limited understanding are the causes of his poor behaviour, are we right to judge him so harshly? Is he not simply doing the job in the best way he knows how?

There are enough other examples of high-powered political people seeming to have little understanding of their responsibilities and who regularly cross the line. We know that abuse of power and corrupt manipulation of government funds are endemic. But are these the symptoms of a rotten society and evidence of real criminality, or are the perpetrators simply doing what they believe to be their right, now that they are in a position to favour their cronies and do something for themselves at the same time? 

Last week Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson congratulated illegally striking workers and promised to hold them above the law and not to let them be prosecuted. Did her fervour to champion the cause of the workers make her lose perspective, or did she not understand, in the first place, that as a minister she was there to uphold the law and the Constitution? 

Did the glamorous Lindiwe Sisulu, as minister of defence, not assume that she was entitled to commandeer whatever aircraft she pleased, to do her job? Is there any kind of moral geometry that may have played a restraining role? 

Why is it that all of us who march to a different drum see it so clearly and they don’t?  Is it conscious and purposeful abuse of the law or is it, once again, ignorant innocence? Those attempting to explain the rapacious behaviour of our present leaders make the point that in the previous regime, people had had several generations to acquire their wealth, while the new lot had to start from scratch. The only way they could establish themselves was by breaking the rules and using the risky fast-track measures of capital growth. How else could they have ended up with the fancy cars and the big houses in the smart neighbourhoods so quickly? The habit of operating under the moral radar became established.

We know that in traditional African culture, there are very clearly defined rules for correct, acceptable behaviour, and the same applies for what is wrong and unacceptable. High standards of morality and ethics were always observed. But when Mr Zuma, addressing a group of traditional leaders, says, “Let us solve our problems the African way and not the white man’s way,” those of us who treasure a Christian-Judeo set of values and a Western standard of governance shudder. Why would he, as the president of a country where he is also the leader of several million white people, be so reckless and to denigrate the white man’s system of solving problems which has evolved over centuries of culture and development? 

The legendary abuses of African political power are well known. The same accusations of moral confusion and scruffy ethics may very well be levelled at the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China, but it is here that we feel it, and it is here where it touches our daily lives. DM

  • Johann Redelinghuys
JohanRedelinghuysBW

Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.

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