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In the absence of ethical leadership, we must not allow ourselves to grow tired and give up hope

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Hloni Bookholane, MBChB MPH is a doctor from South Africa and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is the author of Becoming a Doctor: Learnings and unlearnings about life and the politics of medicine. Follow him on Twitter @HloniBookholane

In my contemplation about ethical leadership, as a young professional, I wonder about those growing frustrated with the status quo who are readying themselves to leave South Africa and abandon the country wholesale. I don’t have any answers, but I do think that if we don’t get tired, we can find hope.

It is hard to overstate the fact that there is a dearth of ethical leadership in the political arena of South Africa. Within the scope of political leaders, the last decade has seen us forced to endure the erosion of public service, governance, and ethics in leadership, among many things.

In 2022, it is no different, one could argue it is getting worse still with no prospect of getting better (especially as those implicated in State Capture attempt to avoid justice). In the absence of leadership, there is no accountability. In the presence of brazen impunity and the absence of leadership, the proletariat grows increasingly tired.   

I have been thinking about the idea of leadership and how it is mostly absent in this country. There are many examples of civil and government leadership which exist outside the delinquent political fora. From non-governmental organisations like Gift of The Givers and Earthlife Africa; to individuals such as Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Pauli van Wyk, and Themba Maseko.

However, we have become so numbed by so-called leaders who lie, cheat, steal, and sexually assault. All of this done while they are in positions where they represent our country, us, you, and me.

We have been indoctrinated to believe that the best we have are sometimes suspended, morally bankrupt, corrupt, and technically inept leaders. Moreover, I think those who feel this way are but the minority. What explains why these people remain in the positions they do?

The social contract between South Africans and these supposed leaders at best does not exist; the “leaders” do as they please with nauseating impunity. At its worst, we have given our tacit acceptance of this behaviour through the absence of our outrage. Whether it is in our friendship circles, at work, in our neighbourhoods, or towards this repulsive government, it seems there is insidious inertia in having the courage of our convictions to speak up.

Just recently, the “leader” of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, crassly referred to his ex-wife as “road-kill” during a public interview. When asked about his alleged infidelity, he skirted around the question and proceeded to participate in toilet humour.

What is worse though, is that this engagement “worked”; people were engaged, and far from being the party’s faux pas, this was a win. The party highlighted the interview on their Twitter page, giving its stamp of approval. The standards are as low for elected politicians as they are for the electorate.

This may be a chicken or egg situation; have we become defeated and worn down to the point that we no longer challenge and/or call out the moral and ethical leadership crevice we exist in? Or have we become mute in the presence of the thuggery and unscrupulous leadership because of the lack of accountability we have come to know? It’s hard to say, likely both. Whichever it is, it is devastating because when we look at what we have put up with, it becomes hard to hold folks to a respectable standard.

As a country, we must demand accountability, even if this is not what appears to be front of mind on the ground. Even though we could exploit the current “standards” to our benefit, we must do better. We must set a standard of ethical leadership and not promote that which suggests we, too, if given the power by citizens, will be beyond reproach.


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Our political parties that wish to become governing parties must aim higher and be entities that impressionable young people can look to for examples of local and national leadership, among other things. Even if the (political) system is flawed and it often seems that there is nothing much which can be done, we must do the little things which add up to the big things to course correct. We cannot allow potential governing parties to get away with the same insufferable behaviour the ANC has, only because they are not the ANC.

We must be better than the status quo. We need to emphasise this fact; that when people lie, steal, or behave in otherwise morally indefensible ways, it will be denounced, and people held tangibly accountable. Unless, of course, we don’t care for these public norms governing behaviour.

To prevent and limit the ongoing departure from this country of the young and ambitious, we must demand better, always.

In an unrelated meeting with someone I admire last week, they said something I have been mulling over. They said “don’t get tired” because if you do, then the worst can and will persist.

We must demand better, always, tired as we may get.

In the incessant failure by government to meet the needs of South Africans, Gift of The Givers has always heeded a call to provide disaster response, hunger alleviation, water provision, healthcare, education, and human development. They have done this not only in South Africa but around the world as well. This is the standard of leadership we ought to demand from elected officials.

True to their venal nature, politicians almost halted this country’s limping trajectory by way of an ill-conceived nuclear deal. Were it not for civil society, EarthLife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute speaking truth to power and demanding accountability, this country would likely be in far worse shape today; both financially, and especially, environmentally.  The state, and the futures of its people, would have truly been captured.

In the presence of omnipresent corruption, we could get worn down to a point of ignorant apathy. Investigative journalists, government officials with a conscience, and whistle-blowers who continue to take a stand could look the other way as the criminals desperately wish they would, but they don’t.

Insurmountable as their work may be, scary and life-threatening as the risks they take on, they don’t tire. Their bravery, service, and work have contributed significantly to efforts to root out the rot and corruption and they stand as a testament to what a few good people can and must do, for the greater good.

In my contemplation about (ethical) leadership, as a young professional, I wonder about those (growing) frustrated with the status quo who are readying themselves to leave South Africa and abandon the country wholesale.

I don’t have any answers, but I do think that if we don’t get tired, we can find hope, contribute in a meaningful way and be paragons of new values. In the absence of leadership from elected officials, we have people, organisations, and institutions that are working continually to demand accountability, expose corruption, and provide the ethical leadership that is so dearly needed.

In the absence of leadership, we must not get tired. DM

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    “scary and life threatening” sums up the task of the ‘ethical’ ! Amongst them are the ‘journalists’ like Maria Ressa and the late Shireen Abu Akleh – murdered by a tyrannical regime and helped in their cover up by their sponsors the USA. The former regime has become a specialist in assassinating those it does not like or confront it… yet claims to be the only ‘democracy’ in the middle east! Several other ‘ethical’ journalists across the globe are facing similar murderous forces. As for the political sphere, it has long been the perfect home for the scoundrels ! Exceptions such as Madiba are a rarity, who would speak truth to power, irrespective of its consequences or where it comes from.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Hloni, you are correct in exposing how low the ethical barrier of SA political parties are. It is clear that they are playing a game with each other, which they call “politics” and sometimes even “professional politics” (!) at the expense of the SA voters. Firstly, in spite of the ConCourt ruling that councillors, MPL’s and MP’s have a constitutional duty to put their view of the will of the voters before their party instructions, the political parties, in their coalition dealings, keep doing it at national level, while the only way to do this according to the ConCourt ruling is for the councillors to deal directly with each other; any other way means that the councillors are not allowed to be true to their status of representatives of the people who voted them in. And as a result the metro’s are destabilized contrary to the interest of the residents; but the political parties are unfazed, they just go on with this childish game. Secondly, in every election all the political parties in most of the councils of SA agrees to suspend the by-laws regulating the putting up of posters in order that they, the political parties can have a “free-for-all” until the election is past. Those by-laws are there for a purpose, and was put in place through a process of public consultation, not so? So on what grounds do they suspend these by-laws (or part of it then) other than that they in effect also suspend their responsibility towards us the voters?

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . Furthermore, the municipality where I live was the only one in the province which did not suspend the regulation regarding posters. Now this regulation determined at the time of the 2019 election that each role player can for each event only put up 40 posters per town (take note, 40, not 4000 or 40000, but 40). Yet we all know what happens during elections and in 2019 it was no different – there was far more than 40 posters for each party in every street. So the political parties have actually become a law unto themselves. I SERIOUSLY SUGGEST THAT, WHEN IN 2024 THERE ARE INDEPENDENT CANDIDATES ON THE BALLOT, ALL VOTERS IN SA VOTE FOR THEM AND SACK THE POLITICAL PARTIES until they learn to respect the laws that they themselves made, as well as their constitutional responsibility towards the residents of SA!

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