Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 10 March 2017

Get rich, get rich, get rich, at all cost Mzansi, get rich!

As the Gordon Institute of Business Science hosts an important conference on ‘Fraud and Corruption, Governance, Ethics, compliance and investigations’, three pertinent questions are being asked: How can you ensure ethical leadership, good governance and accountability in business and government? How can directors and management play a key role in reducing fraud and corruption? What are the best practices for fraud prevention, audit, compliance and investigations? These are pertinent questions because corrupt practices are rife within our society at large. The necessary leadership both politically and in the corporate world is sorely lacking.

Most readers who have read expose after expose of corruption on the political front, government, parastatals, and municipalities, do not need to be reminded of this. But do we pay as much attention to white collar crime and corruption in the corporate sector? The speed at which the banking collusion matter died in the media is astonishing. Do we recall it ever happening? Between the debacle at the opening of Parliament and the fiasco of the Sassa grant payments issue, we have all but forgotten about the banks (those fine representatives of White Monopoly Capital) and their crime against the people of Mzansi.

I hope they have not managed to corrupt our competition commission personnel or other investigations agencies so that this matter can quietly go away, without redress and consequences. It appears, after all, to be commonplace for the wealthy to buy their way out of the problem. Money solves and indeed absolves all of our sins.

When discussing corruption and lawlessness it’s not long before our president’s name usually pops up. Is it any wonder that we see lawlessness at lower levels of society, when the rot starts at the top? Until Jacob Zuma and his administration demonstrate ethical leadership we have no hope in overcoming, or even curbing, corruption in our country.

But business leaders must also demonstrate ethical behaviour. Currently, the fact of the matter is that both political and business leaders do not. We have had no outcries, no clear remedial action, not talk even of a self-correction path against the collusive behaviour by our corrupt corporate leaders.

The private sector seems to have a mantra of “anything goes” – while the government is in a shambles, anything to make a quick buck. And therein lies the problem. I cannot imagine what such behaviour by our leaders imparts on the psyche of our people? That it is okay to behave in this manner, that anything goes in the pursuit of wealth and happiness?

In the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in 2006, Thabo Mbeki attempted to dissect the very nature of this corrosive blight on our society. He argued that corruption is a reflection of human values espoused by capitalism: “We are speaking of the observations made by the political-economists that, since the onset of capitalism in England, the values of the capitalist market, of individual profit maximisation, has tended to displace the values of human solidarity.”

So the values of human solidarity – and our calling to be a healthy, viable collective – is replaced by the individual maximising profit. Mbeki draws on R. H. Tawney in his famous book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, quoting that: “To argue, in the manner of Machiavelli, that there is one rule for business and another for private life, is to open the door to an orgy of unscrupulousness before which the mind recoils… (Yet) granted that I should love my neighbour as myself, the questions which, under modern conditions of large-scale (economic) organisation, remain for solution are: Who precisely is my neighbour? And, how exactly am I to make my love for him effective in practice?”

These questions are relevant to all South Africans today – those in the private sector maximising profits, and ignoring collusion and/or corruption; those in government where stealing from the poor is justified for their personal upliftment; those police who choose not to act against crime to augment their salary and lifestyle; those engaged in local levels of crime, and those taking justice into their own hands and meting out punishments while bypassing the criminal justice system.

Mbeki points out further that in seeking a moral compass in a capitalist society, religion too falls short: “To these questions the conventional religious teaching supplied no answer, for it had not even realised that they could be put… Religion had not yet learned to console itself for the practical difficulty of applying its moral principles, by clasping the comfortable formula that for the transactions of economic life no moral principles exist.”

The central point made by Mbeki in his 2006 lecture is that the capitalist market destroys relations of “kinship, neighbourhood, profession, and creed”, replacing these with the pursuit of personal wealth by citizens who, as he says, have become “atomistic and individualistic”.

And so, retuning to the three questions posed at the beginning of this article, we must ask whether our political and corporate leaders have become atomistic and individualistic in their respective roles? Have they lost all compassion with their fellow citizens and are they indeed simply motivated by getting rich at all costs?

In this ocean of despair, shall we allow ourselves to be blown this way and that way, allowing these corrupt leaders and government officials to thrive unabated? Or do we challenge them, and say: “no more!” In government circles, we are labelled as “regime change agents”. For questioning and objecting, it’s presumed you want to see the overthrow of the government of the day. Today, it is “regime change agents”; surely, tomorrow it will be “enemy of the State”. In the private sector we are dismissed as “naïve or Marxist or radical revolutionaries”. But our cries are not mere words. They are appeals for a redirection, a diversion from an unfettered, capitalist path where accumulation of personal wealth is primary. We caught a glimpse of such a path from our National Treasury and its efforts to prioritise the poor in the 2017 Budget speech. We are not the few. We are the many.

To conclude, I return to Mbeki’s famous words: “Thus, every day, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!”

So I ask our government leaders, our corporate leaders, our police men and women, our citizens and foreign nationals in Tshwane and indeed all others in our townships: Is our only means to escape from poverty the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of our neighbours and at all costs, get rich? DM



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