Eskom, Sars, Life Esidimeni: What happened to professional ethics?


Gross materialism, obsequious quietism and greed are the main causes of maladministration and disregard for democratic values and principles in organs of state.

Gross materialism is extreme concern about material possessions and wealth.

Obsequiousness denotes a character being excessively submissive. Quietism is the practice of accepting things as they are without an attempt to resist or change them.

Greed means selfish desire for power overtaking principles.

Section 195 of the Constitution enjoins all in public administration to govern by its democratic values and principles.

These principles include the promotion and maintenance of a high standard of professional ethics; efficient, economical and effective use of resources; and accountable public administration.

These principles apply to administration in every sphere of government, organs of state and public enterprises.

In line with the Constitution, national legislation, such as the Public Finance Management Act, obliges accounting officers (directors-general, chief executive officers, heads of department and municipal managers) to maintain effective, efficient, economical and transparent use of resources; and an appropriate procurement and provisioning system which is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective.

Accounting officers may delegate their powers to managers who should maintain the same standards within their area of responsibility.

The above-mentioned constitutional principles envision management that performs its functions and exercises its powers without fear, favour or prejudice.

Disregard for these principles has been reported on in various inquiries, such as the mental marathon project (arbitration award by Justice Dikgang Moseneke on the Life Esidimeni tragedy) and the inquiry by Judge Robert Nugent into the operations of the SA Revenue Service (Sars).

The former takes the trophy. It goes to the heart of obsequious quietism and failure to act without fear.

Dealing with the principle of accountability, Moseneke in the award evinced that then head of the Gauteng department of health Barney Selebano implemented the marathon project out of fear of Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu as his political principal, and had to follow even her unlawful instructions.

Management worked on the project with amazing quietism, resulting in disregard for and compromise of constitutional values and principles, and other legal obligations.

Allegations of disregard for legal duties have also been reported to have afflicted state-owned enterprises such as Eskom.

Another report relates to the hike in the cost of acquiring locomotives at Transnet. Cost hikes are likely to be effected and endorsed at management level, not by juniors.

The question is: “Why do employees resort to such unethical decisions?”

The closest answer is that they are likely to personally benefit financially (gross materialism and greed), or that they submitted to unlawful instructions without resisting (obsequious quietism).

Allegations of purging of executives and staff at Sars have been reported on. A manager at Sars was therefore asked to clarify his role in this practice to the Nugent commission.

A possibility is that the manager, blindly, obsequiously and quietly, acted on instruction from a superior power.

Various legislation entrusts accounting officers with maintaining discipline in respect of members of staff, and empowers them to do so.

Accounting officers must maintain discipline of staff based on their own decisions.

They must do so without any undue influence, coercion or pressure from superior powers to which they report.

This means that they must not act with obsequious quietism out of intimidation and fear of reprisal by their superiors or appointers.

Managers delegated to maintain staff discipline in their areas of focus must also not, out of fear of censure from the delegator, take disciplinary action against their juniors resulting in the latter being victimised, abused and/or purged without cause.

Management must act honestly, diligently, bravely and impartially.

The legal system should reach the transgressors of constitutional principles and the law.

For conscious gross negligence by voluntary acts or omission, and in reckless disregard of a legal duty, accounting officers should be declared delinquent and removed from their positions, borrowing principles from the Companies Act.

Since declarations of such delinquency would relate to maladministration, they should be made by the Public Protector in consultation with the Public Service Commission.

The promotion and protection of the rule of law is the responsibility of management in all organs of state. Government by law.

Sedupane is an advocate of the High Court of SA

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