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We have a critical responsibility to put South Africa back on a firm ethical footing

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

There is an ethics crisis in South Africa. Just as we have a shortage of workplace skills in this country, we have a shortage of people who are equipped to deal with the complexities involved in making an ethical decision.

So, was it wrong that the Batho Batho Trust, which owns 46% of Thebe Investment Corporation, donated R15-million to the ANC in December? This gift, which came just before Christmas, enabled the cash-strapped organisation to pay outstanding salaries and settle other expenses. 

If I was Batho Batho’s managing trustee I might not see anything untoward in the gesture. As the Rev Molefe Tsele told Financial Mail editor Rob Rose, “We do have sufficient funds to assist.” 

And if I was the ANC’s treasurer-general, Paul Mashatile, who was facing an empty larder and increasingly irate staff, I might have accepted the donation with a sigh of relief. If only life and its choices were that simple. 

As Rose points out, Thebe owns 28% of Shell’s downstream business in South Africa. And Shell was, at that exact moment, facing a court challenge over its plans to conduct a seismic survey in waters off the pristine Transkei coast. It was also a survey that Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe – who should have been unbiased – strongly supported. 

But, as Mashatile and Tsele probably told themselves, Shell’s downstream business in South Africa, which is involved in fuel retailing, is a separate entity entirely from the upstream entity that is intent on locating new sources of fossil fuel off our shores. Thus it could not influence – or benefit from – the actions of the upstream business. Except that ultimately they are all controlled by one company – Shell. 

And as Rose points out, the ANC, specifically Mantashe, is definitely able to influence Shell’s exploration activities, although in this case, to limited effect. 

I’m not reciting this story to make a point about whether Batho Batho was wrong to make the donation, or whether the ANC was wrong to accept it; I think we know the answer to that. The point is that ethical decision-making is often complex, and making the correct decision is often not clear-cut. 

We have an ethics crisis in South Africa. Just as we have a shortage of workplace skills in this country, we have a shortage of people who are equipped to deal with the complexities involved in making an ethical decision. That the people involved in making this decision did not recognise that it compromised both parties, and ultimately Shell too, points to this fact. Being an ethical person is not about being a good or bad human being, or simply not lying, stealing, or killing. Ethics is a learned skill – and it’s one we should begin inculcating in our youth at school. 

Being ethical requires four specific skills: The first is moral sensitivity. This is the ability to identify or recognise that a particular action or decision raises ethical concerns and their decision will have consequences for other people. 

Then there is a moral reason. This is the ability to understand and articulate your reason for the position you have taken. The opposite of this is moral disengagement, where people know that their behaviour is unethical, but find a reason to justify it. There are many of those kinds of people in our world. 

The third is moral intent or motivation. You don’t learn this in a book. This is about understanding and living up to the role you fulfill in society. It’s about leadership – and in this, each one of us can be a leader. It’s a personal choice. 

And, lastly, one needs a thorough knowledge and understanding of ethics and ethical dilemmas. This part can easily be taught. 

However, all of this becomes academic once moral degradation sets into society, taking the bar lower and lower. Then lying, stealing, or cheating are not considered bad because “everyone does it”. After all, if the (former) president and all the president’s men are doing it, why shouldn’t we? We have reached that point in South Africa. This is why holding people accountable for their actions, and ensuring they face consequences is so very important. The National Prosecuting Authority cannot fail. Right now Shamila Batohi requires all of our support – and not condemnation, which is counterproductive. 

Aside from the usual remedies, like strengthening our institutions and filling management rungs with strong competent people – both of which remove opportunity – we also need to interrogate ourselves on our treatment of whistle-blowers, which is abysmal. Why is that? Is it because deep down we have been brainwashed into not being the tattletale? Is it because we feel we are betraying our circle of people? Is it that we ourselves are afraid of speaking up, or out when we see wrongdoing? Whatever it is, in South Africa challenging existing moralities is dangerous and ruffles feathers. Socrates knew this and was not surprised when he was condemned to death. Some whistle-blowers may feel the same. 

Hopefully, the recommendations of the Zondo Commission for better protection of whistle-blowers are a step in the right direction. But it shouldn’t only be up to Zondo. Putting South Africa back on a firm ethical footing is an individual and collective responsibility, and if we absent ourselves from this responsibility it will poison our society and leave a lasting legacy for the next generation. DM168

Thanks to Schalk Engelbrecht and Minka Woermann from the Centre for Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University for an insightful discussion on ethics in business and society.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • South Africa does not have an ethics problem. The government and a number of large businesses have some ethics problems. The rest of us are fine thank you

    • Well said. There is little point in pushing the blame onto everyone when it’s mainly government and some private people that are thoroughly corrupt.

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