How do we identify ethical leadership and politics?

Very many South Africans are cynical about politics and doubtful whether it will ever be pursued with integrity, with the purpose of serving the people of the country. When people claim to have devoted their lives to public service it is seldom treated seriously. The ANC slogan for its centenary was “100 years of selfless struggle”. That was at a time when it was already well known that the prime endeavour of leading figures at all levels of the organisation was to provide a “better life for the few”- for those who were part of patronage networks, involved in corrupt or irregular dealings and who were close to power at all levels.

There are also many who have similar doubts about the integrity of opposition parties or who doubt whether opposition parties pursue ethical politics in the broad sense of having the interests of the oppressed and marginalised at heart.

Although there have been many calls for “ethical leadership”, including from Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, the meaning of these words is opaque. We need to ask what ethical leadership and political conduct means. We need to do this so that we know what we are looking for, and so that we do not misrecognise what we see. This is a difficult topic because it is easy to become mired in abstruse philosophical questions that may appear to bear little relationship to the issues that trouble us.

Moreover, it is important to make some distinctions in order to recognise, and encourage, such leadership, and, insofar as some or even many people may aspire to ethical political conduct, we are able to correctly advise what it entails.

On the one hand, we refer to choices that can be made on an objective basis between distinct courses of action which may be considered ethical and others that may be regarded as unethical.

One can argue endlessly about the ethical character of a particular choice, drawing on insights from a range of belief systems and scholarly disciplines. In the end we may conclude that to do one thing or another – for example to endorse the Nkandla spending or to choose armed struggle – was right or wrong, or that a different choice would have been better.

The debate is not restricted to those engaged in political action. It arouses considerable interest amongst ordinary members of the public as well as scholars. It is precisely this fact, that the debate about right and wrong may include those who have no intention of doing anything more than vote, that raises an important question.

Should we not draw a distinction between considering ethics purely objectively as a question for intellectual scrutiny and examining the state of mind or the motivation of those who act or choose not to act?

There remains plenty to debate relating to objective decisions now and in the future and which may or may not be able to influence courses of action. But there is a missing factor and that is that we are expecting specific people to make certain choices, to act in one or other way or to refrain from acting in some situations.

If we describe someone as ethical we are not speaking of an innate quality with which the person was born. The same goes for courage or integrity. These are all qualities that some people acquire and others do not. These are people, as we all are, who have been subjected to various influences that have helped shape who they are, but they have also made decisions for themselves. Each individual has come to particular critical moments, points within their life experience, where they have had to choose one or another course of action. Some have chosen the road that provides greatest benefits for themselves, and that is not a crime.

But where that route of personal benefit presents choices that can be harmful to others, what makes some people eschew the route that causes harm or even act to alleviate harm and spread the benefits more widely?

Choosing to act ethically means preparing oneself to carry out a course of conduct over time and in a range of situations. Having made the initial choice some may find it too difficult, and set less onerous targets for their own ethical interventions. Some may remain unwavering in pursuing goals that present tough challenges for themselves. In order to remain steadfast and true to these goals, those who undertake them need to prepare for what lies ahead in their lives so that they are not found wanting when the going gets tough.

Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi all understood that making an undertaking was insufficient. There had to be adequate preparation to ensure that they were ready to carry out the responsibility they had assumed. Luthuli internalised a particular view of his Christian faith, as having significance not only as a private belief system but also in relation to his neighbours, that is, all human beings.

“It became clear to me that the Christian faith was not a private affair without relevance to society. It was, rather, a belief, which equipped us in a unique way to meet the challenges of our society. It was a belief, which had to be applied to the conditions of our lives; and our many works – they ranged from Sunday School teaching to road-building – became meaningful as the outflow of Christian belief.

“Adams [College] taught me …that I had to do something about being a Christian, and that this something must identify me with my neighbour, not dissociate me from him. Adams taught me more. It inculcated, by example rather than precept, a specifically Christian mode of going about work in society…” (Albert Luthuli, Let My People Go, Tafelberg. Cape Town, 2006, 28)
We also see that he understood that doing what he thought was right required preparation, as in the 1952 ANC Defiance campaign. Those who defied were to be so disciplined and willing to undergo such hardships that they were known as “defiers of death”.

Luthuli was reluctant for the then-Natal region of the ANC, whose president he had recently become, to participate immediately. A meeting was held to decide whether leaders in Natal were prepared for the requirements of the campaign. They had to be ready to take the pledge that Congress required. Mary Benson describes the situation:

“Among the gatherings about the country when Congress leaders and their followers took the pledge, was a small meeting in the bare rooms of the ANC offices in Durban in the busy Indian shopping centre. The new President of the Natal Congress, Chief Luthuli… said to his Executive,’Look, we will be calling upon people to make very important demonstrations and unless we are sure of the road and prepared to travel along it ourselves, we have no right to call other people along it.’ M.B.Yengwa …described what happened after that: ‘We said we were prepared and he said he too was prepared, and he asked us to pray. We gave our pledge and we prayed.’” (Mary Benson, South Africa. The Struggle for a Birthright. International Defence and Aid fund. London 1985, 144-5).

Vows and oaths are an important element of much of religious life, as in the Catholic vows of celibacy and poverty. Gandhi placed a lot of weight on vows, from his Hindu background, as one of the ways of ensuring that a commitment was honoured. But it was also a factor in the politics that he pursued, being one of the ways that the newly formed Natal Indian Congress was inaugurated in 1894 and a factor in the famous Indian identity document burning (“bonfire”) in Newtown in 1908.

Mandela is celebrated as a heroic figure. But he makes clear that acting bravely means conquering fear. He and others had to decide to act ethically and bravely and that required preparation. Notably he recalls facing the strong possibility of the death penalty being imposed during the Rivonia trial. He remarks that when one finds oneself in that type of situation one must not say one is ready to die without having thought out what it means, and risk faltering when the moment of danger arrives.

In the South African liberation struggle there were some who embarked on dangerous tasks without properly evaluating what would be required and then collapsed when faced with the reality of arrest and other unpleasant possibilities. Some lost their dignity in pleading with the authorities. Amongst other forms of betrayal, some gave state evidence against their comrades.

Chris Hani was very well aware of the need to look at the psychological readiness of soldiers who infiltrated the country to carry out tasks. It is recorded that he would call some of them aside before they crossed the border and ask whether they were sure they were ready, trying to establish whether any individual had unfinished business that could prevent them from carrying out their tasks.

In order to act ethically, we need a proper measure of ourselves. I cannot say with any certainty how people come to the fusion of their understanding with passion and compassion, a readiness to act ethically, no matter what the cost. One thing is clear and it is that we need to see ethical consciousness – as in willingness to sacrifice – as a quite different question from being learned in Marxist or biblical texts, and arguments about these and other revolutionary or religious doctrines. We need to understand that a subjective ethos is as crucial, if not more important, than how we evaluate what to do.

[This article is part of an ongoing enquiry. Provisional arguments will be presented in a public lecture at St Augustine College, Victory Park, Johannesburg on 1 June. See:
http://us8.campaign-archive2.com/?u=dc5e6c247839c531c2022d077&id=bfde8b37be&e=b8a224f3ad

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Much of his life was spent in the struggle against apartheid and in building the new democratic order. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner and under house arrest. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and he has authored or co-authored Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001), 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (1986) 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (2006), The ANC Underground (2008) and most recently Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za]