Guest Column

OPINION: Where are the honest politicians? And why all the sleaze?

2019-11-10 06:00
Former DA leader Mmusi Maimane. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

Former DA leader Mmusi Maimane. (Chanté Schatz, News24)

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What are my choices of characters for a committed and ethical public official? I have chosen a deep personal commitment to the greater good over the long run rather than to particular interests over the short run, writes Rich Mkhondo.

"The better things of life I see and approve; the worse things of life I follow," wrote Ovid, an ancient Roman poet.

Thousands of years after Ovid, author of The Metamorphoses and The Art of Love provided this guidance on the importance of ethical behaviour and the benefits of living and working ethically, the tendency to stray from the path of ethical behaviour is still with us and getting worse.

Respected politicians are encountering the sleaze factor. Every day we hear of politicians who are supposed to be the paragons of perfection, but are caught with their fingers in the till or playing with a lady's knickers, demonstrating frequent ethical lapses by those who daily preach about moral consciousness.

In recent weeks, former DA leader Mmusi Maimane has had to answer tough questions about his use of a car gifted by disgraced former Steinhoff chief executive officer Markus Jooste and his home in Cape Town's posh suburb of Claremont. This contributed to his political downfall and may lead to the break-up of the DA and the formation of a splinter party.

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently directed queries about a letter in which the ANC is alleged to have thanked Bosasa for a R3m donation to be addressed to the ruling party. Did the party know that the donation was ethically tainted?

The EFF is fighting allegations that its leaders had their hands in the VBS Mutaul Bank cookie jar and the party's deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu, has conceded that money from the now collapsed bank was used to pay for his high-end Range Rover.

In a double-whammy of claims of bribery, corruption, ethical misconduct, let alone an extramarital affair, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has denied paying Sunday Word journalists not to publish an article about a love triangle involving him, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Lerato Habiba Makgatho.

And who can forget the widely circulated Malusi Gigaba video?

These and many stories are  proof that politicians are also human, so at some point they'll be tempted to do things that wouldn't make their parents, partners, children or friends proud.

Ethics mirror society's values

The media reminds us daily of the ethical lapses that bloom across our planet. True, there are politicians who uphold high standards of honesty, respect and fairness in their dealings with others. However, at the end of the day, ethics mirror the values of a society.

The point is ethics in politics and government are really no different than ethics in one's personal life. Therefore, people who do not lie, cheat, steal or depend on favours or freebies should have no problem handling ethical questions in government.

As a political science student at Rhodes University I remember reading about utilitarian versus deontological viewpoints.

Philosophers define utilitarianism as the time "when something is moral, or good and produces the greatest amoun of good for the greatest number of people… an economic analysis that focuses on human lives and says that those actions that make people happy are good."

The term "deontology" derives from the Greek "deon" meaning "obligation" or "duty", hence deontology is described as "duty-based" or "obligation-based" ethics, because deontologists believe that ethical rules bind people to their duty.

Regardless of which underlying theory of ethics makes most sense to you, both deontology and utilitarianism share a common goal: a society of pride, patriotism and national self-worth should be our ultimate objective.

In real life, as we see in the examples above, none of us is exclusively utilitarian or deontological. Whether we are politicians or ordinary citizens, sometimes we act solely as a matter of principle as guided by deontology. Sometimes we act practically, that is in a utilitarian way. Therefore ethics is the same in every sphere of life whether in business, politics, religion, community or family.

Ethics are easy when times are good

But to some, including our politicians, unethical behaviour promises survival – the opportunity to exploit or self-enrichment, spawned by self-interest, and wreaking havoc on confidence and trust.

Good ethics are nice and easy when times are good and fortune smiles. Character is tested when times are tougher, pressures mount and uncertainty prevails as Maimane, Gigaba, Shivambu, Mantashe, Mboweni and many politicians have demonstrated.

Ethics and golf

Ethics is about honesty, fairness and respect. Maybe all politicians should be golfers. In my beloved sport, there are frequent self-reporting infractions and self-imposed penalties for incidents that no one else may have noticed.

In golf, one cannot even move the ball for the advantage of easy play. This is a realistic approach for public service ethics. Ethical misconduct should be self-reported.

It is a pity that many people have a jaded, unrealistic impression that public servants are lazy, bloated, bureaucratic and mostly unethical. We can see this in the low voter turnout, questionable candidates running for public office, particularly in local government.

It is sad that the ultimate barrier to widespread adherence to high standards of public ethics is the feeling that "it is our time to eat" and the power that comes with political office. It is a pity that despite the fact that public servants ought to be ethical, there are numerous examples of officials elected or appointed to positions despite widespread knowledge of their ethical lapses or unethical conduct.

Let ethics be an integral part of our human condition. Let ethics shape how we choose to interact with each other.

Public officials must not lie, cheat or steal but strive to tell the truth to fellow government bodies and media. Our public officials must avoid all conflicts of interest and avoid even the appearance of impropriety, maximise the public good, rather than embrace cronyism or advancing the interests of party political machineries.

So, what are my choices of characters for a committed and ethical public official? I have chosen a deep personal commitment to principles grounded in the public interest; the greater good over the long run rather than to particular interests over the short run; commitment to the advancement of the welfare of those undeservedly less well-off and underprivileged; dedication to volunteerism; honesty with the public and with fellow politicians and humility. Humility comes very hard to politicians who enjoy exercising power over others, particularly egos which drives self-interest.

We deserve honest local, provincial authorities and national government run by ethical politicians.

Our politicians have a choice. They can choose to be unethical, or be honest, fair, respectful, and own up to mistakes and apologise when they are wrong.

- Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a ghost-writing, content development and reputation management hub.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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