23 July 2012
GUM-CHEWING AND TEXTBOOKS: TWO DIMENSIONS OF THE ETHICAL CHALLENGES SOUTH AFRICA FACES
Gum-chewing on the Gautrain and the non-delivery of textbooks to Limpopo schools: two stories making headlines in both traditional and social media. Perhaps more importantly, commentators on social media are linking the two, in particular the scale and swiftness of the consequences each infraction has elicited.
In the one incident, two young women who allegedly flouted Gautrain regulations against eating were summarily detained and released only upon payment of a R700 fine. In the other, as we all know, mismanagement, corruption and callousness on an operatic scale is being handled with kid gloves.
“Commentators are right to contrast the swift and severe punishment meted out to the two young women, and the fact that those responsible for the Limpopo debacle remain in office while endless commissions publish damning reports,” says Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA). “If we think through what these two incidents mean, we can arrive at four principles that will play a vital role in helping us cure our society.”
First, argues Professor Rossouw, we need to accept that if we are going to vanquish the big ogres like corruption, patchy service delivery and the malfunctioning educational system, we need to hold the law and other policies and regulations in respect. This culture of respect for the mechanisms society has put in place to promote fairness and justice is not divisible, and must hold true for both the apparently trivial and the obviously important. As Rudolph Giuliani showed when he helped turn New York around, getting the small things right can help create an environment in which the big things can be tackled successfully.
“In that light, I’m afraid it was quite right for Gautrain officials to enforce the railway’s policy—though it would appear that they did the enforcing rather harshly and clumsily,” Professor Rossouw says. “But, by the same token, the disregard for the government’s educational policies and regulations in Limpopo should receive a similarly swift and unequivocal sanction.”
A second and related principle is that respect for the law, policies and regulations is actually a bare minimum. Too many people in public life use the law or legal concepts as way to shift blame. “Nothing has been proved yet”, “There’s no actual rule that says I can’t do this” are phrases often heard; instead of taking responsibility for the impact their actions have on society. In the Limpopo scandal, we have seen the national minister, the provincial MEC and even the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) all refusing to take responsibility for their actions or inactions based on a narrow reading of the relevant law and regulations.
These first two principles are interconnected, and so are the last two, which basically concern consequences. We have to ensure that there are consequences for non-performance. If there are no consequences, and the same old faces keep on reappearing in new jobs, then we will never build a functioning state or a healthy society.
The flipside, and this is the final principle, is that there also have to be consequences for good performance too. If one is solely focused on catching people out, one creates a climate of fear that actually encourages people to duck accountability and inhibits action. It is vitally important, Professor Rossouw believes, to identify the top performers and reward them—this type of action inspires people to do their best and positively reinforces the culture of accountability.
“We will only win the war against corruption and maladministration if we build up a culture in which law and policies are respected, no matter whether they are seemingly unimportant,” Professor Rossouw says. “We will do that by ensuring that there are consequences for those who do not perform and, perhaps even more importantly, that those who do perform are publicly rewarded.”
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