By Anthea Paelo

The other day the taxi I was riding in was stopped by a policeman. Not an unusual event in itself. Neither was the exchange of money that happened afterwards. What was strange, at least for me, was the policeman’s method of request. Upon stopping the taxi, he did not bother to pretend to ask for a driver’s licence or check for broken headlights, he asked the driver politely for some money to buy lunch. The driver later remarked that it was probably the easiest bribe he had ever had to pay.

This incident came to mind during a recent dialogue organised by the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars and hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The discussion revolved around ethical leadership, a relevant topic given the recent media exposure on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence or the recent Tongaat mall tragedy.

Right at the beginning of the Conversations of Change dialogue the obviously seasoned facilitator, Gavin Price, a lecturer at the institute, asked an important question: “How many people believe they are ethical?” Curiously, about 80% of the attendants raised their hands. That is until we actually began to speak about what ethical leadership looked like. In the process, some common truths came to life.

The Oxford English dictionary defines ethics as the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or activity. The attendants also agreed that being ethical means having certain basic characteristics: integrity, compassion, humility and excellence. There must be a willingness to sacrifice one’s comfort, one’s position and one’s lifestyle in some cases if one is to be truly ethical. It also means staying true to the values one believes in. It is true that those values often change depending on context and background, and that what may be ethical for one person may not be for another. Community and societal values often define what an individual’s ethics are. Therefore, if a certain level of ethics is accepted in a community (for instance, if it is generally accepted that paying an extra R2 000 to easily obtain a driver’s licence is the norm), then that is what will be seen in the community.

One of the attendants of the dialogue put it more succinctly: “Corruption only persists because there are enablers.”

In one way or another, we contribute to the corruption we claim to be fighting, whether it is by paying that extra R2 000 to get a driver’s licence or providing the traffic officer with the R10 he requests to buy lunch. If we continue to perpetuate corruption in our own lives it seems somewhat hypocritical to ask for a higher level of ethics from our leaders.

But of course, there are those who believe that the level of ethics we expect from our leaders should be different because they have been given a position of responsibility and power. The truth, however, is that being ethical many times requires a level of sacrifice that most people are not prepared to give. Giving an officer a small amount of money is easier and more convenient than paying a ticket at a later stage and many consider it much cheaper to pay extra for a licence than to have to wait for a new testing date if we fail.

If we were to be completely honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that the people who offer small bribes are our friends, spouses, and even our parents. And sometimes we are the ones who offer the bribes. But it is easier to demand crucifixion of strangers than to demand accountability from ourselves. And so we continue discussions on how to get rid of corruption and continue to point fingers, exclaim over pictures of the president’s residence, sharing them rapidly on social networks because he should be ethical. He should be thinking of the people he governs.

It is easy to justify this bias. Our actions are not big enough to affect anyone else. For people in public office however, it is a different matter. Perhaps our community has the type of ethical behaviour it deserves. Maybe by allowing our own small indiscretions, we are giving others permission to make even bigger ones. Perhaps the high level of corruption in the country should not come as a surprise, and if we are looking to blame someone, maybe we should look no further than ourselves.

At the end of the Conversations for Change dialogue, Price asked again, “How many people believe that they are ethical?” The number of people who raised their hands had reduced significantly. It was now only about 20%.

Anthea Paelo is a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. She is currently completing her master’s degree in development economics with the University of Johannesburg. Anthea is a lover of words. Her short story “Picture Frames” won the 2013 Writivist of the Year Award.


Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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