Rare chance for SA to reset its ethical compass

Amidst the current political turmoil, South Africa sits with a strategic opportunity.

As SA hurtles headlong towards the expected chair-tossing anarchy of the ANC’s 54th national conference in December, it has a rare opportunity: to reset its ethical compass. The benefits for business would be profound.

South Africans have become inured to what would be shock events in other countries. The combative arena of politics in Europe is akin to the set of Strictly Come Dancing against the rank brutality of South African politics, where bloodshed isn’t a metaphor.

Murders, daily in the double digits, slip to the inside pages of SA’s newspapers; racial differences still dominate social discourse and threaten to rend the delicate democracy; and the currency remains the whipping boy of global trade.

But ironically, within all this repetitive nihilism is a sense of certitude: people resign themselves to the situation remaining so. This is why, when pushback against British public relations firm Bell Pottinger and its poisonous narrative pulled a thread that led not only to its rapid unravelling, but also that of KPMG and McKinsey, it all came as something of a shock.

There may have been silent cheers that rabid chickens were finally coming home to roost, but, overall, South Africans seemed unsettled with the consequential disruption.

Social media — unfettered by the tethers of responsible journalism — has, however, made a meal of the whole thing, disgorging many a canny conjecture, such as the implosion of KPMG is encouraging fellow financial service heavyweights to sing to the sound of paper shredders at full tilt.

But it’s unfolding at a pivotal time. According to the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, SA continues on a steady decline in the ethical behaviour of its firms and shows a drop in the strength of auditing and reporting standards, previously one of our few gold stars.

While many may see this as further cause to berate our leadership, it is an opportunity, one linked to SA’s ethical compass. If a country’s collective morals are the beliefs of what’s right or wrong, ethics are the guiding principles that help it decide what’s good or bad. Ethics are often tied to clear written statements such as a country’s constitution, its laws and its codes of good business practice.

Having said that, there’s always a little wiggle room. However, in SA, it is a giant circular ballroom, where government and businesses don’t so much wiggle as happily hot step between what is right and wrong, good and bad.

Now imagine that the ballroom is a compass with four principal points: moral and immoral, legal and illegal. That’s an ethical compass.

Ideally, the government and all businesses should operate within the sector defined by what is moral and what is legal; that’s ethical. However, it assumes the good standing of the country in terms of global moral measurement.

Freedom of expression is illegal in many countries, so operating between what is “moral” and what is illegal in those countries would be ethically defensible. Operating between what is legal and what is “immoral” is also a grey area. Countries that permit child labour host businesses that employ that labour without risk of breaking any law; however, it still flouts international rights and is therefore unethical.

Any organisation — state or otherwise — that operates between what is illegal and what is immoral is ethically corrupt.

SA has no need to waver. It boasts an ambitious and esteemed Constitution, so the direction we should take on the ethical compass is clear: it must be moral and legal; there are no grey areas. However, for too long too many companies and too many individuals in the government have rejected that path to venture into darker territory — unquestionably unethical — assuming they have some measure of sanction.

Under the dim light of a tainted legal system, they have reaped their fortunes. But now they’ve bumped into the bouncer. So social, political and economic fallout unfolds. The whizzing sound isn’t paper shredding, it’s the needle on the country’s ethical compass spinning, looking for direction.

Perhaps events at the ANC’s national conference will give it cause to settle, point SA in the right direction and strategically put the government and business back on track.

Originally published in Business Day, 13th October 2017