“The long-term consequences of corrupt activities can be dire and jeopardise the life of innocent and ordinary employees of the business…Those involved in corrupt activities should be severely punished. This will ensure that our limited resources are fully utilised to implement developmental programmes that can improve the lives of South Africans. I trust that we are united in this goal.” Responsible for supporting the implementation of ethics and anti-corruption programmes within the Gauteng City Region, it is Dr Unathi Mphendu’s esteemed alumnus wish for South Africa. Read more about his school and university studies, career fighting corruption in the frontline including personal and professional goals.
Q: Briefly summarise your studies and your professional career, with special mention of specific highlights/milestones.
A: I am originally from a Freshwater (Ndakana) village, which is approximately 15 kilometres outside Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape along the N6 as one drives towards East London. This is where I completed my primary and part of my secondary education. I attended Nonyameko Primary School from grade A to standard 5, followed by Masimanyane Senior Secondary from standard 6 to 8. I completed my secondary education in 1999 at Thubalethu High [boarding] School, in Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape.
I passed my matric with a university entrance. I acquired a Bachelor of Commerce (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) in 2004 from the University of Cape Town, followed by a Master’s in Public Administration in 2011 at the University of Pretoria. I enrolled as a PhD student between 2015 and 2017 at the University of Pretoria, where I complete my thesis titled: Evaluation of the implementation of professional ethics and anti-corruption legislation: the case of the Social Sector Cluster in the Gauteng Province.
I have been a public servant for 15 years (2006 – 2020). This journey has exposed me to the functioning of various national government departments. I was fortunate to secure employment at the Department of Water and Sanitation (Intern and Auxiliary Officer); Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Policy Analyst), including the Office of the Public Service Commission (Assistant Director: Professional Ethics Research and Promotion). I am currently employed as the Director: Ethics and Anti-Corruption at the Gauteng Office of the Premier. My primarily responsibility is to support the implementation of ethics and anti-corruption programmes within the Gauteng City Region. I’m a South African citizen with great enthusiasm and passion to contribute meaningfully towards the social and economic development of the African continent.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute towards your success?
A: I believe my studies at UP have equipped me with knowledge and skills to resolve challenging work-related assignments with ease. I am also convinced that the qualifications I acquired at UP have contributed towards career opportunities which have broadened tremendously. I take comfort in the fact that UP’s qualifications are recognised internationally. Hence, I am confident that I will be able to adapt in any working environment, nationally and beyond our borders.
Q: Can you single out a special mentor/trusted advisor who played an indispensable role in your life/studies/career?
A: I believe that it takes a village to raise a child. I have several special people who have contributed immensely to my career development. They include, inter alia, family members, friends, teachers at both primary and secondary schools, lecturers at under-graduate and master’s level, the supervisor for my thesis, including supervisors and colleagues throughout my professional career. All these people are special to me, and I genuinely appreciate their different roles to ensure that I realised my potential to be the person I am today. I will always be indebted to each and every one of these individuals. Hence, it would be unfair to select one specific person.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you impart to current students?
A: It might look tough at the moment, but my advice is that they must continue working hard. They need to focus and take advantage of the opportunity they have to be part of this prestigious university. There are thousands of students who would like to enrol at UP but due to various issues, they are unable to realise their dreams. Those who have been accepted must capitalise on this glorious opportunity. UP qualifications open many doors. Hence, they must focus on their studies and forget about only having fun. They will have more and quality fun after they acquire their qualifications.
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
A: I grew up playing soccer, a team sport. I love being in a team because its success totally depends on all members playing their role effectively. I enjoy playing my part to acquire the desired results for the group. I take comfort and joy in seeing others happy due to my dedication and contribution.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/organisation?
A: I work with ethics and anti-corruption-related matters. I firmly believe that the desperation for profits or success should not lead to businesses being involved in unethical practices. The long-term consequences can be dire and could jeopardise the lives of innocent and ordinary employees. I, therefore, believe that businesses should strive, even during tough times, to ensure integrity, professionalism and pay attention to detail because these are crucial towards their overall success. We have first-hand experience in South Africa of what happens in the long-term when businesses are involved in corrupt business practices.
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc) do you enjoy reading?
A: I am addicted to the Sunday Times – I seldom miss it on any Sunday, unless there are challenges beyond my control. I always read the Business Times insert to keep up to date with the happenings in the business world.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with an inspiring person – in any domain – who sets an example in transforming the global village and inspiring others to do the same, who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: Not really an inspiring person – I am always fascinated by those involved in corrupt activities. It would be appropriate to analyse the psychological impact of those involved in acts of corruption. How do they feel when they circumvent internal processes and procedures with the primary objective of acquiring public funds for private interest? The recent scandals involving big businesses demonstrated to the public that corruption is a challenge that cuts across all sectors. It would be interesting to establish what goes through the minds of those who plan acts of corruption. Do thoughts of the probability of getting caught enter their minds?
In instances in which big businesses are involved, it could be argued that they were confronted by an unimaginable pressure from their bosses to secure the deals. Were they courageous and stood their ground and refused any involvement in unethical conduct? It is likely that I fail to comprehend the act and the ‘steps’ that eventually emanate in the actual act of unethical behaviour. How do the nefarious enjoy their expensive lives, that is, purchase expensive holiday homes, go on vacations and purchase luxury vehicles from the proceeds of crime? What emotions do the corrupters feel when they see abandoned projects and are aware that the intended funds had been diverted for themselves?
Q: Going forward, what are your professional/business/personal goals?
A: I want to continue providing support for the implementation of public sector programmes, therefore, I intend to prioritise strong relationships with relevant stakeholders to guarantee a successful working atmosphere. However, my ultimate goal is to return to rural areas and assist those from disadvantaged backgrounds to realise their potential and dreams.
Q: In 2020, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. What is the biggest ‘lesson’ you’ve learnt from this pandemic and to what extent did it change your mindset?
A: COVID-19 has taught me to always attend to my goals while the circumstances still allow me the opportunity to think of the future, which is unknown. We may plan; but God will decide. However, we need to take the opportunities presented by this pandemic because COVID-19 has forced us to realise that certain aspects of our lives can be much better managed if we maximise the utilisation of technology in our midst.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for South Africa and its people for the rest of this decade...and beyond?
A: The starting point is to admit that the majority of our people lack access to basic services. Although our resources are limited, we have the potential to achieve more. However, of concern is the increasing levels of corruption is reversing the gains that have been achieved. Those involved in corrupt activities should be severely punished. This will ensure that our limited resources are fully utilised to implement the developmental programmes that can improve the lives of the South African citizenry. I trust that we can be united in this goal.