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African Leader

Transformation And Ethical Leadership

Transformation cannot be effected without the wisdom and bold thinking of ethical leaders, argues Phakama Mbonambi.

Twenty-two years ago, South Africa had a watershed moment when apartheid was expunged from the statute books, and Nelson Mandela ascended to the presidency of South Africa after a memorable, democratic election.

A rainbow nation was forged from the ruins of violence, despair and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, it was one of the momentous events of the 20th century. Even back then, the country’s newly elected government, as well as various stakeholders, acknowledged that the country’s resources needed to be fairly distributed so that the rainbow colours could last and the country could continue to be united in its diversity. As a result, economic transformation became the buzz word – the bridge to the promised land.

Guided by the country’s Constitution, successive legislation was passed to ensure that black people, who suffered terribly in the past, were speedily brought into the economic mainstream.

One of these laws was the Black Economic Empowerment Act, which introduced and opened broad-based share schemes to the previously disadvantaged, and promoted affirmative action. The belief of the new South Africa has always been that a new society cannot be sustainable if centuries-old economic imbalances are not redressed; if a tiny minority of citizens continued to bask in the sun of privilege while their compatriots drowned in a sea of poverty.

Indeed, in recent years, the country has witnessed a wave of service delivery protests whose frequency, geographic spread and violence are unprecedented. There can be no clearer illustration that frustration with the slow pace of change could boil over and trigger mayhem.

On the whole, South Africa’s successive democratically elected administrations have succeeded in making the country chart a new course, with stunning successes in pushing a developmental agenda. Just look at the number of proper houses dotting the land; the number of people enjoying the benefits of electricity instead of using dangerous candles; and the general improvement of infrastructure even in places located far from urban centres.

Despite varying degrees of success, the state is intent on working to satisfy everyone’s aspirations, not just those of the few; that’s what the new society is all about.

Stubborn challenges

Sometimes, though, some of the problems from the past stubbornly refuse to go away. Chief among them are economic exclusion, racism and landlessness. Commentators and experts speak until they are hoarse about what the country needs to do to get rid of these scourges, identified as barriers to achieving a truly transformed society.

Transformation has always been a rallying cry of the Black Management Forum (BMF), an organisation of black professionals in businesses that are at the forefront of lobbying for fundamental change in the corridors of power in corporate South Africa. The organisation celebrates 40 years of existence and, under the guidance of current president Mncane Mthunzi, is as committed as ever to live up to its founding principles.

One of the commentators weighing in on the subject of how to achieve a truly transformed South Africa is Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Delivering a keynote address at a BMF gala dinner held in June at Emperors Palace in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg, Justice Mogoeng identified the land issue as being critical to resolve to achieve the economic upliftment of black people. He called for the proper application of minds for bold leadership. “Let’s find an effective way, effective strategies and practical solutions to the land issue,” he said. “It’s a thorny issue, it’s an emotive issue, and it’s a very, very serious issue.”

At the gala dinner, Justice Mogoeng agreed with the BMF’s thinking that the struggle to achieve a truly transformed South Africa is about “breaking down the core barriers that stand between black people and justice, barriers that stand in the way of the advancement of black people”.

He proceeded to call for bold thinking, the kind that helped countries such as Singapore and South Korea to transform themselves into economic miracles. He stressed that investment in education must be one of South Africa’s priorities.

Pierre De Vos, a constitutional law scholar based at the University of Cape Town, does not mince his words about the reasons why transformation of South Africa’s socioeconomic landscape is moving at a snail’s pace. “The obvious problem is that redress measures implemented over the past 22 years have not eradicated the patterns of economic disadvantage and exclusion established during the colonial and apartheid eras, at a time when patriarchy remained dominant in South Africa,” De Vos says.

“There are far too many economic and social barriers (including entrenched economic inequality; racism; sexism and homophobia; and unequal access to education) that prevent many South Africans from reaching their full potential.”

For him, the solution needs to include “structural changes in the way the economy operates as well as in the manner in which educational and other opportunities are created for individuals or groups who have historically been excluded from taking part in the economy as equals”.

Crucially, De Vos also believes that quality leadership is crucial for South Africa to advance transformation in all spheres so that all citizens can have a chance at having worthwhile livelihoods, irrespective of their race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. “Good leadership requires imagination and a willingness to consider different options,” he says. “I fear that far too many leaders (both in the political and the business sphere) lack such boldness and  imagination. This leads to people doing the same thing over and over despite the fact that it has shown not to work.”

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng at the launch
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Eric Mafuna, a respected business strategist and one of the founders of the BMF, is also vocal about the need for sound leadership to set South Africa on the right path. “Ninety percent of South Africa’s problems are the result of poor leadership, bad leadership, or lack of leadership. And until you sort out leadership, South Africa will remain a basket case,” he once pointed out to writer and journalist Fred de Vries.

“Leadership is about setting examples and moving people forward. Sound leadership motivates and structurally changes our environment in every aspect, from the psychological and the social to the physical and the economical.”

Mafuna highlighted that apartheid was very good at destroying black leadership at community level. “You’ll be hard-pressed in the black areas to find a community that functions to the same extent as the Jewish or Indian ones. And, if you don’t have communities that function, can you have families that function?”

Mafuna believes that black organisations at community level can help promote  sound community leadership and help curb a culture of greed and corruption.  “We are fast-tracking people without the nets to capture them when they fall, without the mechanism to provide the discipline, without the moderating structures. So the person feels no responsibility to the family or the community. There are no organisations that tie them to the community, no structures that force them to go back to the extended families,” he says.

He does, however, acknowledge that  the late statesman Nelson Mandela represented one of the most unique leadership models to ever come out of South Africa. “Mandela’s secret to success is the issue of paradox. How to manage the paradox,” Mafuna says.

After studying the Mandela machinations, Mafuna’s organisation coined the phrase “constellational leadership”: something which from a distance looks like one bright star, but in reality is an interplay of many stars. This phrase refers to Mandela shining brightly because of two smaller stars around him – Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa.

With Mbeki focusing on the day-to-day running of government (with Ramaphosa out of the political picture), he shone less brightly, while Mandela reflected moral leadership. “This is a binary leadership model. In essence, it works within this constellation of leadership,” Mafuna says.

Ethics and leadership

No amount of championing transformation could omit addressing corruption, a cancer of South African society and, as Judge Mogoeng explained at the 2016 Serious Social Investing Conference in Johannesburg in April this year, a symptom of unethical leadership.

He said ethical leadership was not an option but a national imperative that has rubbed off on followers. “When you are a leader, you have the authority to influence those you lead, and it is what you do that largely determines what those who follow you are likely to do,” he said.

“When leaders are unethical in their approach, check what those close to them do. When leaders do not shy away from taking what does not belong to them, they lack ethics, and watch what those answerable to them are going to do.”

Judge Mogoeng told the conference that the country could only move forward if leaders did the right thing, if they helped to undo the injustices of the past, and tackle the divisions and racism that continues to plague the country.  “Our primary focus should be on making a meaningful contribution to change South Africa for the better, to deny South Africans who were previously aggrieved the opportunity to even think about going back to the dark days – a nation of people at war with each other, killing each other.”

Reuel Khoza, former chairperson of the Nedbank Group, is another staunch advocate of ethical leadership. In 2012, he evoked the ire of the political class when he warned that the “moral quotient” of the political leadership was “degenerating and we were fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past”. The knives were out for him, it seemed.

When receiving the Luminary Award from the Free Market Foundation in June this year, Khoza fearlessly revisited the thorny issue of ethical leadership in his speech. “We are seeing an alarming upsurge in racism as frustration and  anger take hold, in place of the spirit   of forgiveness and inclusiveness that Nelson Mandela embodied,” he told  the audience.

June 23, 2015. Dr Reuel Khoza, Chairman and non-executive director of Nedbank. Sunday Times Director's Event. Hilton Hotel, Johannesburg. Picture: JAMES OATWAY Sunday Times.
June 23, 2015. Dr Reuel Khoza, Chairman and non-executive director of Nedbank. Sunday Times Director’s Event. Hilton Hotel, Johannesburg. Picture: JAMES OATWAY Sunday Times.

“For another thing, we have seen the emergence of a strange breed of leaders, determined to subjugate the rule of law and override our noble constitution. This is not the tolerant and accountable democracy for which generations  suffered and fought.”

Khoza said South Africa needed ‘at-your-service leadership”. This is “a leadership that is visionary and as passionate as it is compassionate. The leadership I refer to should set us all firmly on the road to regeneration through exemplary character, setting high targets for themselves and everyone who takes up the challenge,” he said.

In essence, the call for ethical leadership is a call for a return to the core values that made South Africa’s transformation so inspirational around the world – the end of an old order with minimal bloodshed and the ushering in of a new era of hope where once there had been pain, despair and exclusion;  it’s a call for the unpacking of the value of ubuntu, which is about good governance and putting others first ahead of one’s own aspirations.

Looking towards a truly transformed society

Generally, Justice Mogoeng sees transformation as stretching from the workplace to the community. He also believes that individuals can do good within their communities, even on a small-scale, and achieve meaningful results. It’s a concept of each one helping one.

“How many of those disadvantaged children whose parents simply do not  have the means do you take to high  school and university out of your own pocket?” he asks. “Don’t tell me that you can’t afford it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t   have bought a Rolex.”

The esteemed judge, while acknowledging the role of the state in facilitating change, urges organisations such as the BMF to sharpen “their capacity with a view to finding solutions” to pressing issues in the country, and not fall into the trap of blaming government for everything, or to raise their voices opportunistically because “it’s fashionable to throw stones at government”.

Instead, in search of these solutions, these business formations need to “permeate the structures of influence in government and outside of government” to offer constructive criticism and advice. “Is it not our government?” asks Justice Mogoeng. “The laziest thing you can ever choose to do is to adopt the position of a critic or a fault-finder. A thought leader ought to remember that where we come from is rather too painful to go back to.”

De Vos is hopeful that South Africa can truly transform and be a wonderful society where “economic benefits and opportunities will not be unequally distributed based on race, sex, gender and sexual orientation”. But for that to happen, the country needs to be guided by a bold vision.

“We have to first imagine the kind of society we dream of living in and then ask [ourselves] what we should do to get there,” he says. “I fear too often too many of us (and I include myself in this) get muddled in the day-to-day issues and do not stop to reimagine in sufficient detail how we think our world should look, where we want to get to.”

Looking to the future – the National Development Plan

While leadership may be suspect at the moment, the National Development Plan (NDP) offers the country a ray of hope about the future. The NDP is a blueprint for the country to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030 “through uniting South Africans, unleashing the energies of its citizens, growing an inclusive economy, building capabilities, enhancing the capability of the state, and leaders working together to solve complex problems”.

While it has its ideological detractors, the NDP enjoys the general support of a large section of South African society – in politics, business and civil society.

The NDP’s stress on boosting the education of South Africans resonates well with many organisations, such as The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA). Led by former Auditor-General Terence Nombembe, SAICA is one of many organisations that has unequivocally come out in full support of the NDP. The organisation believes that skills are easy to be inculcated into an educated workforce and believes this approach leads to economic reform.

“If South Africa is to develop the stable and growing economy that SAICA members rely on for their livelihoods, improved basic education and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit are essential,” SAICA says. “Without them, we cannot tackle the twin brakes on development of unacceptably high unemployment rates, and the resultant growing burden  of social grants on the fiscus.”

It is this conviction that underpins  all SAICA’s education initiatives, including its latest project: a life orientation (LO) reader for Grade 9 learners and their teachers in an often under-resourced subject, called The All Stars: Every Step Counts.

Combining aspects of the LO curriculum with an illustrated narrative featuring four typical Grade 9 learners – Zinzi and her friends – as they deal with various issues at school and in their community, Every Step Counts aims to inculcate strong ethical values in young people, while also teaching them the benefits of financial prudence, career planning, and helping to foster a culture  of reading.

SAICA’s Nombembe states: “The importance of all learners passing mathematics, science and languages  with at least 50% by 2030 – an objective  of the NDP – supports our own professional intake requirements, and so the project is one that happily helps to achieve both our own profession’s needs and those of the nation.”

Functional leadership is vital for the country’s success

At the moment, South Africa pins its hopes on the NDP. It promises to help the country set rigid development plans and recalibrate its focus. But the NDP’s success will no doubt depend on the kind of leadership the country produces in the next 14 years.

It’ll depend on whether that leadership will help to exorcise the ghosts of the past and take all South Africans to the promised land. It all depends on the country having functional leadership, where business groupings such as the BMF are given access to government platforms for lobbying purposes. It hinges on the country trying new,  bold ideas and discarding old,  ineffective ones.

In this setup, ethical leadership, governance and moral authority need to be valued. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out back in 1925, successful societies are those that have the following features: politics with principle; pleasure with conscience; wealth from smart hard work; applied knowledge with wholesome character; responsive business with morality; science and technology with humanity; and worship with sacrifice.


Eric Mafuna , Chairman, Africa Now/Founding Chairman of the African Leadership Group . Pix by Jeremy Glyn in July 2006 for Financial Mail.

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