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The South Africa of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has long lost its moral compass

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Bonang Mohale is chancellor of the University of the Free State, former president of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) in the College of Business and Economics and chairperson of The Bidvest Group, ArcelorMittal and SBV Services. He is a member of the Community of Chairpersons (CoC) of the World Economic Forum and author of two bestselling books, Lift As You Rise and Behold The Turtle. He has been included in Reputation Poll International’s (RPI) 2023 list of the “100 Most Reputable Africans”. He is the recipient of the 2023 ME-Vision Academy’s “Exclusive Recognition in Successful Leadership” award.

‘Cadre is a person whose loyalty is tested, and whose physical and moral courage has developed along with his ideological development in such a way that he/she is always willing to confront any conflict and to give his/her life for the good of the revolution.’ (Che Guevara)

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy and knowledge that deals with moral principles. It involves systematising, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviours or the conducting of an activity. 

A moral compass helps people make ethical decisions by helping to determine which actions would help or harm others, society or the environment. It also helps people see how their actions can have consequences for other people and cultures. It is used in reference to a person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong and therefore act accordingly – an internalised set of values and objectives that guide a person with regard to ethical behaviour and decision-making. 

Morals guide your individual behaviour within a society. Your moral compass is your personal set of beliefs and values regarding right and wrong. The four most prominent values are integrity, forgiveness, compassion and responsibility. Leaders who are grounded by these four principles create very successful organisations, communities, societies and countries.

These four universal principles are honoured in some form by all people and find expression in the four fundamental moral norms of fairness, altruism, trust and cooperation, and as a matter of course play a prominent role in shaping many everyday social interactions. Even currency has morality. Morality is about ethics and ethics is about morality, right, honesty, fairness, integrity, principles, conscience, value, responsibility and  choices. It is about wholesomeness and is a fundamental requirement to achieve success for individuals, companies, human societies and countries.

Ethical behaviour builds trust, which is the glue that holds the electorate to their elected leaders. There is an increasing focus on purpose beyond profits and on inclusion and sustainability. In fact, it is about public well-being – greater purpose and the common good. Values are the principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong and how to act in various situations.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Why is South Africa so corrupt? We must rebuild our democratic moral values

The Democracy Works Foundation has looked into various aspects that show moral degeneration in South Africa. The decline of morals can be seen through corruption, lack of services and a dishonest government that lacks accountability. Some of the causes of moral degradation include an “anything goes” attitude; banishment of distance between right and wrong; feeling that morality is dispensable; mercantile greed and redefining morality to suit one’s own self-indulgence. 

In 2018, the ministries of Justice, Health and Police announced a nationwide investigation into state attorneys and private practitioners accused of syphoning more than R80-billion from the government through collusion, fraud, and corruption. Just looking at the year 2019 alone, government figures show that almost R40-billion was lost in the health sector through corruption. The Council for Medical Schemes has warned that fraud, corruption and waste cost the private healthcare system more than R22-billion a year. In that year, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched the Health Sector Anti-Corruption Forum to tackle corruption in the public and private healthcare sectors. 

In January 2023, eNCA reported that a construction truck had to be deployed to fix the gravel road before the responsible minister and his entourage arrived for a visit to Mkhondo in Mpumalanga, yet residents in this village use that road daily without anyone caring about their plight.

Even the people charged with looking after our form of faith and worship are not immune. In 2014, Lesego Daniel, a self-proclaimed pastor who started the Rabboni Ministries in Ga-Rankuwa, Pretoria, told his church members to eat grass, which they did. In social media images, Daniel was seen standing on top of congregants, feeding them grass and slapping women church members as part of a supposed religious ritual. In November 2020, self-proclaimed Prophet Shepherd “Major 1” Bushiri and his wife Mary fled South Africa for his homeland of Malawi after they were accused of fraud and money laundering worth R102-million. Before they fled they were granted bail of R200,000 by the Pretoria Central Magistrates’ Court. 

In the same year, televangelist Timothy Omotoso and co-accused Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho appeared in the Eastern Cape High Court in Gqeberha on 97 charges, including rape, human trafficking and racketeering, with 47 witnesses testifying against them. Omotoso led the Jesus Dominion International Church. Supporters packed the courtroom during his court appearances. One of the alleged victims, Hlubikazi “Vicky” Faleni, testified that Omotoso had asked her: ‘What would you like me to be to you.” To which she responded: “I would like you to mentor me, be a father figure to me because my father passed away a long time ago.” However, Omotoso allegedly insisted she should be his girlfriend and went on to abuse her. Some of Omotoso’s supporters shouted abuse at Faleni.

Some in business have also been complicit. In December 2017, one of South Africa’s largest companies, Steinhoff, revealed “accounting irregularities” in which the company overstated profits over several years in a $7.4-billion accounting fraud. The scandal wiped out about $13.5-billion or 90% of its market valuation. The fraud happened between 2009 and 2017. 

We all want business leadership in general to try a new path, more granular, more impactful, more real and more moral.

A forensic investigation by PwC in 2019 revealed that 130-year-old household sugar giant Tongaat Hulett’s profits were overstated between 2011 and 2018. It showed that Tongaat’s 2018 profits were overstated by 239%. The company’s assets were overstated by 34% when executives overvalued sugar cane and backdated land sales. The executives scored millions of rands in bonuses based on inflated company profits, with Peter Staude, the former CEO, receiving R94-million in bonuses based on fraudulent sales.

Fourteen people, including Limpopo ANC treasurer Danny Msiza, VBS Mutual Bank chairperson Tshifhiwa Matodzi and bank and municipal officials, have been accused of looting VBS and face more than 100 charges. Fourteen municipalities in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo lost more than R1.6-billion, unlawfully investing public money with the bank, contravening the Municipal Finance Management Act. In 2019, advocate Terry Motau released a report implicating some ANC politicians, the VBS Mutual board of directors, management and municipal officials in wide-scale corruption, which led to the bank’s collapse. 

A significant intervention to steer business back is needed. It is incongruent to talk about a just society when business is seen at the apex of injustice. This needs the incisive bold leadership that only business can provide.

Words of warning

It is no coincidence that no fewer than three ANC leaders, in their addresses at different times, almost in a premonition, spoke to this very troubling concern. Oliver Reginald Tambo uttered the following chilling words: “A corrupt ANC will be far worse than apartheid.” On 29 October 1992, Comrade Chris Hani said: “What I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists… who drive around in Mercedes-Benzes and use the resources of this country… to live in palaces and to gather riches.” And at the September 1994 Cosatu congress, Nelson Mandela said: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” 

The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, upon the passing of Rivonia Trialist Andrew Mlangeni, highlighted that he “continued to speak out against corruption, for morality and fairness within his beloved ANC and in government”.

Martin Luther King Jr’s words beg the question: is the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice? 

Ethically principled leadership is about choosing agility over perfection and the appreciation that there is no improvement without change.

State Capture, corruption and “cadre deployment” has visited untold harm on our nascent democracy. The lived experience of black people is that children born in poverty grow up to be poor and poor mothers raise poor children. “No country can expect its economy to grow, or to live in peace and harmony, while many of its citizens remain marginalised, hungry and excluded,” Ramaphosa has said. 

Our once-wonderful liberation movement has become a waning, corrupt, morally bankrupt, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, rent-seeking, mostly rural, indecisive party now best known for dithering on key socioeconomic issues with a tempestuous approach to policy. It has become synonymous with State Capture, lack of service delivery and leading by commissions and coalitions. The economic devastation brought about by the lowest levels of confidence, trust and hope since World War 2 is truly unfathomable. The biggest loser is the ANC, which has lost its founding principles, integrity, moral authority to be the leader of society, legitimate claim to delivering social justice and social licence to continue to not only exist but thrive.

Ethically principled leadership is about choosing agility over perfection and the appreciation that there is no improvement without change. It is about being fast and nimble, adapting as we learn and continuously evolving our organisations and the country to lead the future. In the same way that the  product of the marula tree is not the fruit but another marula tree, leaders don’t create followers. They create more leaders. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: The ANC cannot fix itself; South Africa’s last hope is business

More than ever, we need focused, ethical and moral leadership from the ruling party, government and business to work together. Rooting out corruption and defeating State Capture in both the private and public sectors remain priorities. Let us all align with those who have a common cause and carry along those who have been left out and those who are struggling. It is up to us to build bridges, remain morally astute and grow our collective coalitions if we wish to tackle and complete the unfinished project of this country and bring about a better country for all. We all want business leadership in general to try a new path, more granular, more impactful, more real and more moral and helping to realise better humans.

As a people with great natural endowments, we are products of amazing warriors of women and men, queens and kings. We have survived the intolerable evils which have weighed on us like a nightmare through the ages. A people who could survive the immemorial practice of the slave trader, colonialism, separate development and institutionalised apartheid. We have conquered and preserved our inherent simplicity and sweetness of disposition precisely because we must have some very fine moral qualities. DM

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  • Bill Gild says:

    What a wonderful post, and how sad that the ANC/SACP has degenerated into such a sordid mix of corruption, racism, and gross incompetence.
    I don’t see a way out of what SA has become. It will end very badly for just about everyone.

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    What a brave, strong call, Bonang Mohale, to each and every one of us to find our moral compass, and then be guided by it. It might seem ridiculously idealistic in a society such as ours, but hey! we have to start somewhere. To think deeply about who and what we are, and to speak up when we see rot and corruption.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    Did Mandela turn into a card-carrying communist? If so, would that be a betrayal of Christianity and its ethics built (supposedly?) on Love?

  • Eulalie Spamer says:

    A pertinent commentary on the state of national leadership. The shift in values from service in the interests of the people to pure undisguised self interest has beggared this country and crushed any hopes that the marginalised will ever see an improvement of their circumstances in their lifetime. As you so rightly say, the abandonment of any vestige of ethical leadership has created this Hobbesian dystopia. This is certainly not the ANC of Mandela and his contemporaries.

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