UP EXPERT OPINION: South Africa needs leaders with conscience

Posted on June 09, 2023

Many citizens of the global south have noticed some obvious trends in the news in the past few weeks. These highlight issues in the international system of states and local governance that link directly with a theme at the Mail & Guardian’s Conscious Leadership and Ethics summit 2023 that took place in Johannesburg last week. The focus of the summit was “Lighting the path to conscious leadership: Conscience over Compliance.”  

Conscious leaders are guided by a strong moral compass, prioritising the well-being of all. They recognise that their actions have an effect and are committed to using their influence to promote social cohesion and peacebuilding. But the reality is that such conscious leaders are non-existent in our international system of states and in many aspects of local governance, both in the public and private sector. How is it that we collectively lack the ability to do what we know is right?

Of the trends present, top of the list is hypocrisy, closely followed by the ease at which lies are generated and spun as the truth coupled with a nonchalance to values such as ethics, accountability and transparency. Paul Polman, one of the speakers at the summit, captured the essence of conscience over compliance as “doing what is right over what is minimally required; the hard of right versus the ease of wrong”. 

From research at the institute in which he is a board member they found that only 17% of citizens believe “our leaders tell the truth”. Euphemisms are often used to mask the realities of governance failures and incompetence, corporate exploitation and individual greed. Often carefully crafted news reports and media briefings forego plain, clear language to slant the truth. For many of us, activists of social justice and ethical governance, the Western outcry for Ukraine and rights abuses versus Palestine is a glaring example of the hypocrisy that favours white lives and white supremacist values over black lives. 

Additionally, the Eskom saga with its rolling blackouts, the ship that sailed from our shores carrying or not carrying weapons for Russia, the “sense of patronising bullying”, the illegal arrest of Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan and the conflict in Sudan speak volumes to the lack of consciousness, ethics and accountable leadership around the world. We, the citizens of the world, work to empower leaders who are supposed to represent us and we trust that they will put humanity back into the heart of our existence. For the most part, this has been a pipe dream.

Polman rightfully stated that we are at a delicate tipping point as this is also the first time that we are falling behind on some of the sustainable development goals. More people are falling into poverty or having to deal with food insecurity. In explaining the tipping point Polman referred to it as a “crisis of greed, of apathy of selfishness” that requires moral and co-operative leadership. 

Imtiaz Sooliman, of Gift of the Givers, said conscious leadership is spiritual. It is “when the soul starts thinking of how to behave correctly”. He reminded all of us that we needed a mind-set change and that “leadership is about spirituality, it is about social cohesion, compassion, sharing, annihilating ego, greed, about picking up others with you”. According to Sooliman, corporates need to self-reflect and instead of only blaming the government, they need to ask, “Who corrupted government?” 

As South Africans, we have only to read the headlines to be reminded of corporate involvement from the Zondo commission’s report on state capture. Sooliman asked corporate leaders to “take responsibility for over-inflating prices and forming partnerships with people who come to rob this country and the people of this country”. He questioned business leaders about their attitudes to profit over people and the ease with which employees are laid off rather than cutting the salaries of the chief executive and other top management to make funds available that would allow people to keep their jobs.

This same trend is visible in the greed of top tier government employees in relation to service delivery, development and upliftment to the most vulnerable in our society. And it is pervasive in the education and health sector as well. 

Significantly, one of the ethics modules in the University of South Africa’s economics faculty no longer receives the support of the university management from within the teaching and learning portfolio or from the finance or human resources departments. The university has refused to provide the necessary support in terms of teaching assistants. Additionally, students are not getting the assistance and tuition they should receive. 

What is apparent is that universities are becoming profit-seeking enterprises and not a public good. Knowledge production that builds on critical skills, moral and ethically grounded issues do not seem to have a place therein. Just last week, more than 40 scientists on the editorial board of publishing giant Elsevier resigned. The academics were fed up with the greed of the company, which refused to reduce publication charges and netted huge profit margins. Academics have to pay more than R60 000 to have their research published as open access in these journals. If an academic does not have these funds, then the pressure to publish forces them to submit to journals where their work remains largely inaccessible to the public. Only people with paid subscriptions get access. This is a form of gate-keeping, and constitutes part of the machinery that legitimises capitalist activity. 

When one looks at the bigger picture we begin to grasp the magnitude of the problem. Brenda Kali, who was one of the partners in the summit, is the founder of Conscious Companies. Kali’s comment that consciousness is fundamental to human existence and that it is “possible to cognitively know a great deal about a subject yet remain untouched by what one knows” made me think about all the so-called liberation heroes who hold positions in our government yet think only of their own pockets. These individuals know about poverty, dehumanisation, suffering, lack of opportunities, selective human rights’ application and depravity, yet they are untouched by the condition of the masses who have been further impoverished since the ANC came into power.

So, is their hope that things can change? In my postdoc research using conversations with women social partners I analyse their values, approaches and decision-making and try to unpack their ethic and consciousness in the work they do. From the preliminary findings, it is apparent that women contribute a different dynamic to ethical leadership, consciousness and development. Women participate in activities and initiatives at the local level to prevent or resolve conflicts, promote social cohesion, and build sustainable peace. They function at the grassroots level, encouraging effective communication and understanding, while nurturing forgiveness and reconciliation. One of my experts, Taubie Mothlbane, the chief executive of the Cape Town International Convention Centre, has been doing exactly this with the staff and colleagues at the CTICC. 

Apartheid eroded the confidence and trust of many coloured people who, like the majority of black people, were indoctrinated into self-hate. So, when Sooliman bluntly reminded all of us, “to save this country, fixing Eskom is not going to solve the problem. To save this country, we need to save the dignity of people,” I agreed.  This is how we start to promote social cohesion, de-escalate conflict and contribute to peace-building. It is about reminding ourselves of the dignity of all people.

Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences/Critical Metaphor Analysis at the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 1 June 2023

- Author Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman

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