Sign In
Your partner
in world-class business learning
Thought Thursdays
Ethical Counterpoints

TT35.png​“Our beloved country has never needed courageous, ethical leadership more than it does now.” Brand Pretorius, one of South Africa’s most respected business leaders, spoke these words at the 6th Annual Ethics Conference held in Johannesburg on 30 May.

I wholeheartedly agree. We seem to have arrived at a place of confusion about who we are as a nation, what we hold dear as common values, and which future we work and long for. These things are everybody’s business, but there is also a special sense in which they are the particular calling of leadership. Organisations, communities and the country depend on their leaders for clarity and motivation on matters of shared identity and common purpose. As for now, the rainbow nation of 1994 seems to be disillusioned and in disarray.

So far I have given the dark side of the picture. At the same conference, Dr Sydney Mufamadi, a former minister in the Mandela and Mbeki cabinets, spoke of the necessity to create ethical counterpoints. That, he said, is within reach of every individual. What does not come from the top can be created through ordinary citizens and leaders from all walks of life. This is helpful.

The rest of the conference produced for me a new awareness of what ethical counterpoints potentially can be. Brand Pretorius not only describes how ethical leadership depends on moral intelligence, integrity, principles, ethical culture, trust and communication; he personifies it. Adv Thuli Madonsela is not only well-known for her undiluted commitment to the imperatives of her office; when she speaks you know that she seeks fair outcomes for all in a humane manner without hiding her own vulnerabilities. On stage were also Kimi Makwetu (the auditor general), Claudelle von Eck (the CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors South Africa), Sabine Dall’Omo (CEO of Siemens South Africa) and Prof Stella Nkomo (a well-known academic). All of them underlined the importance and possibility of ordinary people delivering ethical counterpoints.

A few days after the Ethics Conference, I attended an awards function of Unashamedly Ethical. This initiative was launched by Graham Power, a well-known businessman from the construction sector. I knew beforehand that people would be recognised for ethical behaviour, but little was I prepared for who might be chosen as recipients: youth, sports people, medical personnel, leaders of non-profit organisations. These were ordinary men and women, recognised by others for doing the right thing. Ethical counterpoints are therefore not just produced by those who are prominent, influential and in positions of leadership. They are within everyone’s reach.

So where do we need to see more of such counterpoint behaviours? I want to make a few suggestions that occur to me as being important.

We see too much of an education system wallowing in low standards and mediocrity. We need more teachers and administrators to be ethical counterpoints in education. Such people will work for the benefit of our youth, committed to how they shape and inspire young minds for their role as responsible future citizens. 

We see too many protests and too much dissatisfaction concerning bad service delivery and infrastructure maintenance. We need more public servants who are willing to be ethical counterpoints, committed to high standards and good governance, working diligently for the benefit of communities.

We are confronted by one corruption scandal after the other, and too much of our precious resources have to be spent on bringing perpetrators of such misdemeanours to book. We need courageous decision-makers, people who are prepared to act as ethical counterpoints, at the table where transactions are negotiated, and where tenders are scrutinised and approved.

Creating an ethical society requires people who are willing to be ethical counterpoints whenever these are called for. However, we cannot place the burden of this important task on the shoulders of ordinary citizens when those entrusted to positions of leadership and power are not equally committed to carrying the load. This is our country’s deep longing at this point, namely to take pride in leaders with an undiluted commitment to ethical and responsible leadership. Former President Nelson Mandela once said, "A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of."

I therefore lastly want to suggest that we take this conversation to every boardroom where the affairs of communities, organisations, companies and government departments are being co-determined and where the nature of our society is being shaped. When directors, leaders and managers choose in favour of being ethical counterpoints, we revive the possibility of putting this wonderful nation of ours back on track. 

Adv Madonsela ended her presentation at the Ethics Conference by reminding us that “the rainbow nation, a better life for all, is not guaranteed. It depends on the ethical courage of all of us”.

Arnold Smit.jpg

Prof Arnold Smit’s fields of expertise are responsible leadership, corporate responsibility and non-profit leadership. He is the head of USB Social Impact and President of the Business Ethics Network of Africa. He is also the programme director of USB-ED’s Africa Directors Programme​ that addresses the skill sets that leaders need to respond ethically to boardroom challenges. Starting 31 July 2016, the programme equips participants to exercise the duties of a director with self-awareness, professionalism and sound judgement, to oversee public accountability, and exercise effective board leadership. 

Email address: