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Thought Thursdays
Time to recognise and celebrate extraordinary moral courage

"South Africa's future depends on committed, ethical leadership." These were the words of Adv Thuli Madonsela in November 2016, shortly before the end of her seven-year term as public protector. Since then, this sentiment has been echoed almost on a daily basis by thought leaders, industry leaders, commentators, citizens and politicians. Has it become a meaningless refrain in a society fatigued by corruption and state capture? Or are we resilient enough to keep striving for ethical leadership?

Certainly, we have many unsung ethical leaders in South Africa who can serve as inspiration. I am thinking of CEOs who have led their organisations through hardships; school principals working educational wonders in dysfunctional communities; and individuals who give their time and resources every day to improve the lives of the less fortunate.

But here's the challenge: it is not at them that public calls for ethical leadership are aimed. Public calls are made to those individuals who are supposed to lead our country in a manner consistent with the values espoused in our Constitution. Public calls are made, above all, to government.  

Good leadership is critical to sound governance, thorough planning, efficiency, transparency and accountability. Leaders are role models, whether they choose to be or not, taking on something of a teaching role to others.

Unsurprisingly – by virtue of their authoritative role, decision-making power and visibility – leaders in the public sphere exert by far the greatest influence on society. And, where the lure of political influence is so strong, very specific leadership challenges arise. Not least of these challenges is how leaders may become implicated in or accused of morally questionable conduct as part of political advantage seeking. Multiple networks of expertise, hierarchical positioning, long-standing relationships between comrades, party loyalty and electoral authority together create an environment where it can be quite easy to mislabel 'ethically wrong' as 'politically necessary'.

We are certainly not strangers to this phenomenon in South Africa.

However, we also have leaders of a different kind who, in the face of adversity, stand up for what is right. These leaders display moral courage and act according to their values, despite the risk of adverse consequences. While the ancient Greeks described courage as a response to physical danger or injury, modern scholars often link courage to the commitment to act according to one's ethical beliefs.

Ethical leaders strive to do the right thing even when others choose to take a less ethical path. Consequently  ​​Ethical leaders often find themselves standing alone. They treat people fairly, and display unwavering moral courage, which involves deliberation and careful thought. And when the going gets tough – when they are faced with challenges, critique, ridicule, accusations of betrayal and, in some cases, threats of arrest or threats against their lives – they get going. A key component of ethical leadership is action, rather than rhetoric. It is easy to say the right things while having absolutely no intention of fulfilling them in reality – as we often observe in the speeches of many political leaders. There should be no gap between what a leader says and what he or she does.

We have many examples of leaders who have displayed these characteristics, but I want to single out one in particular: Pravin Gordhan.

Gordhan is a South African politician of note, former Finance minister and former minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. He actively fought in the struggle against apartheid and today he fights the struggle against unethical leadership and unethical business conduct. He has done so at great cost to himself and, one would venture to say, also to his loved ones. He has inspired civil society to emulate his resilience, and keep striving for justice.

At the Business Ethics Network of Africa (BEN-Africa) Annual Conference​ in November 2017 in Stellenbosch, we will honour Pravin Gordhan's moral courage and ethical leadership with the Order of the Baobab Award. The Order of the Baobab is BEN-Africa's award to either individuals or organisations for their extraordinary achievements in advancing ethics on the continent of Africa. Pravin Gordhan, having demonstrated extraordinary moral courage, virtuous and altruistic behaviour and ethical decision making, joins the ranks of previous recipients Adv Thuli Madonsela, Prof Mervyn King and Prof Willie Esterhuyse.

It is time to celebrate excellence and to counter the increasingly toxic narrative of corruption in South Africa. We must remember what kind of public officials our Constitution promises us – public officials like Pravin Gordhan – who never give up the fight for our country's integrity.

Click here for more information on the conference.

Liezl Groenewald.jpeg

Liezl Groenewald is the President of the Business Ethics Network of Africa (BEN-Africa)​ and Manager Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute (TEI)​. She is a seasoned facilitator and speaker at local and international conferences, regularly provides expert opinions in the media (radio, TV, printed media), co-authored the Ethics and Compliance Handbook and advises corporates on their ethics management programmes. Liezl is responsible for researching the state of ethics in the private sector of South Africa since 2009. She is currently working on her PhD in Applied Ethics (Stellenbosch University).  

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