Eth­i­cal com­pass can help de­ter­mine the right course

Business Day - - IN-DEPTH - Chantell Il­bury Il­bury is a found­ing part­ner and se­nior strate­gist with mind­o­fafox

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 in 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.

/Esa Alexan­der

Driv­ing into the fu­ture: Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma plays golf with cabi­net min­is­ters and other VIPs. The ANC’s con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber, at which new lead­er­ship will be elected, will de­cide SA’s fu­ture.

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