The power is in our hands let's use it
17 November 2014
SUNDAY TIMES, Business Times
16 Nov 2014, p.10
can beat scourge of corruption"
As South Africans, our ultimate normative frame of reference is the constitution, which expresses our high aspirations as a nation. We have a sound legislative framework in place and if we are talking governance, the King III Report is, like the constitution, renowned worldwide for the values it espouses. The reality, sadly, does not bear out these most excellent norms and values. Examples of corruption are hardly difficult to find. Bolstering CVs with falsehoods, Nkandla, the arms deal, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, nepotism and collusive and anticompetitive practices are just a few among the many. What we are grappling with is how to bridge this wide chasm between aspiration and behaviour. The scourge of corruption has escalated to levels where we need a more profound cure than merely putting a plaster on this festering sore.
Nothing short of a radical change, a new awareness of thinking, choices and decisions — in other words, transformation — will do the trick. Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, refers to three types of transformation, which could equally apply here. First, personal transformation is called for. In governance lingo, this means accepting responsibility for individual actions. Most people consider themselves ethical, but they also have blind spots when it comes to their own fallibility. This is something that academics (and the courageous and truthful souls among us) have long been convinced of. "The Ethical Mirage", a Harvard Business School paper dealing with this issue, explains that people generally predict that they will act more ethically than they actually do, then compound self-deception with partial recollection of past unethical behaviour. To be courageous enough to do the required introspection, and to admit our personal biases in this respect is regarded as the first step on the road to recovery. Second, it means people must assume accountability in their capacity as members of society — this is relational transformation.
Albert Einstein famously said one cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that caused it in the first place. An individualistic attitude, a desire to hog power (whether it be in the form of wealth or position) are what lead to corruption. The panacea is a change of heart and mind from egocentric to empathetic — a change that demonstrates an appreciation for the social implications of a lack of ethics. The Batho Pele principles, which are expressed in the slogan "We belong, we care, we serve", are an excellent example of this sort of ethos. Research shows that fraud and corruption happen when three factors are in place: opportunity, motivation and rationalisation. Having a deep understanding and empathy for the systemic and societal implications of corruption undercuts motivation and rationalisation, as both of these are inherently underpinned by the opposite persuasion — namely, gain for the few at the expense of many. Third, transformation of our public and business institutions is necessary.
For institutional transformation to have any hope of succeeding, it should be preceded by the leaders of these institutions having done the work at a personal level to be able to set the tone and serve as role models. This is supplemented by the introduction of practical measures, such as codes of conduct and ethics training. Because corruption is a systemic issue, institutions should adopt a systemic response that encompasses collaboration.
Consider that democracy is a political system, set up as an arrangement of checks and balances, so as to uphold the equilibrium of power. This arrangement is effective only because accountability and independence are the primary mechanisms that give the notion any meaning. It is by reclaiming the power of being accountable and holding people accountable that we, as South Africans, find the answer to how we fight corruption. But this involves the hard and courageous work of a shift in the heart and mind.