Elections alone are not the answer; SA citizens should build an ethical society now

May 6, 2014


Ethics Institute of South Africa

6 May 2014


Elections alone are not the answer; SA citizens should build an ethical society now


Widespread acceptance that corruption is now perhaps the major inhibitor of social progress and justice, and a major contributor to escalating social instability, is giving rise to calls for a more ethical society. Even the President, himself facing accusations of unethical conduct, intermittently makes a call for moral regeneration.


“A lack of ethics in public life has made South Africans appreciate the benefits of an ethical society, but they need to get rid of their consumer mindset when it comes to ethics,” says Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA). “What we need to realise as a nation is that ethics are not something we can just ‘consume’ – we all have to collaborate in manufacturing an ethical society. We should all commit to playing our parts in building a culture of ethics in 2014.”


Experience, backed up by multiple studies, has shown that ethics cannot be brought into being by decree, whether by a board of directors, a government or a religious authority. It has to become the default setting that governs how the majority of people live their lives. For this to happen, everybody within the society has to play his or her part in building up an ‘ethical capital’ whose dividends will benefit everybody.


Professor Rossouw points out that ethical practice is fundamentally based on the notion of moving beyond one’s own narrow self-interest in order to contribute to the greater good. He says that there are five main areas of national life in which South Africans should be working to manufacture an ethical culture.



With 2014 being an election year, perhaps the most obvious area is politics.

“Elections tend to prompt politicians to focus on short-term political gain, but given the state the country is in, they should be finding ways of being politically successful that build society up, that create rather than consume social good will,” Professor Rossouw says. “That’s the spirit in which President Mandela operated, and would be a fitting memorial to him.”


Public service

The second – and related – area is public service. It’s clear that too many of our public servants abuse their positions for self-enrichment. Acting ethically for them means serving the public and not their own self-interest.


Executive pay

An equal obligation to help manufacture an ethical culture falls on the private sector, particularly at a time when wealth disparities have become a global scandal. One issue that has become a flashpoint is excessive executive pay. By making sacrifices, bosses could help employees regain their commitment to the company’s long-term health – something that appears to have been lost in the current industrial relations environment.



In terms of South Africa’s long-term sustainability, education is arguably the most important sector. Although the sector is highly politicised, a handful of educators have shown that by focusing on their core jobs, it is possible to provide the kind of quality education that produces citizens with the skills and outlook on which our future prosperity will be based.


You and me

The final area is civil society, or you and me.

“There is outrage about corruption, but many of us play along with it by bribing officials or treating the people we deal with dishonourably,” Professor Rossouw observes. “The way in which we conduct ourselves in daily life sets the foundation for the kind of society we want. How we drive, how we treat each other in the street, how we take responsibility for the cleanliness of the public space outside our homes: these are all practical ways in which we can become not just consumers of the benefits of ethics, but creators of an ethical, just and ultimately stable society.”




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