Forget ethics, simply following the law would save SA billions
If officials and companies simply comply with basic legal obligations it would make a big difference, says judge
Billions of rands of taxpayers’ money lost through corruption could be saved if South African government officials and private companies simply met the minimum legal requirements for ethical behaviour.
That is the view of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who said on Monday that while there was a distinction between ethics and the law, the two often overlapped.“When we talk about acting ethically beyond legal compliance it seems to me that in a country such as ours just getting significant numbers of our people, of government and of companies, to simply comply with the basic legal obligations would make a big difference in the lives of people in this country,” Zondo said. “There is a lot of taxpayers’ money that would be saved.”
However he said South Africans must act ethically beyond mere legal compliance.
Zondo was addressing a the 8th Ethics Institute Annual Conference held in Midrand in Johannesburg.
He said while people should always try to follow the rule of law first, there was still a place for ethics “because the law can’t cover every human conduct”.
The theme for this year’s conference at Gallagher Estate was how to change ethical conduct within organisations.The Ethics Institute CEO Professor Deon Russouw said the failing of a number of major private and state organisations over the past years and revelations of state capture allowed the topic to pick itself.
“A year ago South Africa was a very different place. People were almost getting away with murder, central law enforcement agencies were paralysed and we sensed something bordering between fatigue and cynicism from the public,” Russouw said.
He believed an absence of proper ethical structures were the biggest threat facing South African organisations and institutions.
“I don’t buy the argument [at organisations] that when something goes wrong it was one bad apple. When you look at it you realise how systemic it is and how it was perpetuated over time.”
While Zondo said ethical standards stood a better chance of being embraced and adhered to when “everyone believes the same rules apply to everyone”, panelist Vuyo Temba said a homogenous approach was not easy in a culturally diverse place like South Africa, and that cultural diversity had a role in how people viewed morality.
“It plays a huge role [especially] when you look at how we socialise,” Temba, who is a clinical psychologist, told Times Select. “Different cultures socialise differently which means that what they would perceive as ethical or unethical would also probably be different.”She said the role of leadership was just as important and was one that had failed South Africans in recent time.
“In South Africa the modelling of behaviour that we’ve had recently permitted a whole lot of things that meant people felt entitled to do certain things because of the leadership that was permissive of unethical behaviour,” she said.
Temba said a change in the narrow way we define ethical behaviour was fundamental to change.
“The definition of ethics needs to move away from corruption, things that can be audited and things that only have financial impact. It needs to start looking at the salient things we do,” she said.