Spring cleaning our democratic institutions

Retired Judge Robert Nugent. (Photo: Elvira Wood, Netwerk24)
Retired Judge Robert Nugent. (Photo: Elvira Wood, Netwerk24)

The two judicial commissions – led by Judge Robert Nugent on SARS and Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on state capture – are opening doors and windows to enable a proper spring cleaning. They are exposing cracks, cockroaches and other undesirables in the house of Mzanzi. 

It is a psychologically draining process. But it is also bringing relief to citizens of Mzanzi who always suspected that there are more than just the oddities of the Zuptas undermining our democracy. Citizens can look forward to living in a cleaner environment starting this spring! It is more than just the beautiful flowers that are springing up from the unpromising Namaqualand. It is the rebirth of the country of our dreams.

This reminds me of the household I grew up in with a perfectionist mother and a demanding father who did not ordinarily participate in domestic work. Every month-end weekend we would have to do spring cleaning to make up for the hurried housekeeping of a working mother without any domestic help. We would be surprised to see how many cobwebs – and the odd cockroach – emerged from under the nooks and crannies of furniture in the house.

The freshness of the home at the end of such spring cleaning made up for the "snot en trane" of hard labour.

South African citizens seem to be ready for new life, but as always, it gets darker before the dawn. There is a heaviness in our domestic air as we count the cost of our failure to complete the transition to a just, democratic society with a shared value system that puts people at the centre of all our endeavours to bridge the gap between "them" and "us".

There is a growing consensus in our society that our social ills can only be tackled in a sustainable way by creating an environment that promotes greater consciousness about who we are as citizens and our right to demand ethical leadership at the personal, professional and political levels. 

Leaders in both the public and private sectors are calling for ethical leadership. Bonang Mohale, CEO of Business Leadership SA, put it succinctly in this week's City Press: "A critical issue facing South Africa (and the world) that blocks possibilities for economic development and shared growth is the inadequate level of ethical consciousness and ethics management in the business domain." 

The same sentiments were shared by the former statistician general, Dr Pali Lehohla, who noted that the tone of public discourse, the levels of respect for human dignity and the safety of life and limb leave much to be desired. Public violence and destruction of common assets are increasingly the chosen approach to settle conflicts by fellow citizens who are enraged by their continued marginalisation.

What remains unaddressed is how we are to shift our mindsets to embrace, nurture and practice ethical leadership in the cultures of all our institutions? How do we move institutional culture issues from being "soft" to become the anchors of mainstream behaviours and business practices? How do we incentivise oversight from the leadership of each institution? 

If we agree that unethical behaviour and practices block possibilities for economic development and shared growth as revelations at the commissions on state capture and SARS, then what steps are we taking to unblock the possibilities for higher and inclusive economic growth? 

Citizens do not understand their roles

Efforts by President Ramaphosa to attract investments, both local and foreign, are unlikely to succeed in stimulating sustainable inclusive economic growth unless we tackle the root causes of our problems. 

Low levels of consciousness about what it means to be a citizen of a constitutional democracy have led to behaviours that have hollowed out our state-owned enterprises and continue to destroy shareholder value in a significant number of corporates. 
Most citizens do not understand their roles to hold their leaders accountable for living the ethical values of Ubuntu.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) needs to take advantage of the spring cleaning exercises by the judicial commissions to strengthen its approaches to recruiting, inducting and developing civil servants to raise their level of consciousness as citizens and stewards of state resources accountable to citizens. Performance management should include a strong emphasis on measuring behavioural patterns reflecting integrity, competence, responsibility and accountability.

Our education system at primary, secondary and tertiary level needs to explore how to promote consciousness of what it means to develop, support and graduate young people with the behaviours and mindsets of responsible active citizens. 

Our education process needs to raise consciousness from early levels to prepare young people for careers as citizens who exemplify conscious ethical leadership exuding the values of Ubuntu – "I am because you are!"

CEOs must ensure ethics trumps profits

How involved are CEOs in ensuring that ethics trumps the crass pursuit of profits at any cost? Recent revelations of serious corporate fraud and aiding and abetting state capture, reflect institutional cultures that are at variance with the values of our Constitution.

Widespread sexual harassment and assaults detailed in a recent survey of corporate culture in our society indicate just how much more work still needs to be done by business leaders to model and reward ethical conduct.

Our Constitution sets out very clear human rights and Ubuntu values that need to be established in every institution to enable us to develop a shared ethical value system. This would unleash the talents and energies of every citizen to contribute to kickstarting sustainable inclusive growth. 

President Ramaphosa, as one of the key architects of our Constitution, needs to champion more visibly the promotion of its human rights values as shared national ones, to ensure a shift from behaviours that have undermined our democratic institutions towards more ethical consciousness. He has an historic role to make the Constitution come alive in our homes, schools, workplaces and places of worship.

The Department of Arts and Culture is well placed to be tasked by our president to champion the celebration of the greatest heritage of our democracy – our Constitution, as the anchor of Heritage Month. Would it not be splendid to celebrate the spring cleaning by the judicial commissions by making this Heritage Month a spring of new life and energy in our democracy and its institutions?

Imagine if we were to use every Heritage Month as a time of renewal of our vows as citizens to honour human rights and dignity of all by living the values of Ubuntu in all our social relationships! That would be the true spirit of spring.

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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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