Corruption should be treated as a violation of the law and not just an ethical misdemeanour.
These were the views of former finance minister Trevor Manuel, who was speaking at a Gordon Institute of Business Science forum on ethical leadership in business in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
Manuel warned that corruption and a widespread lack of accountability meant the institutions of our hard-won democracy could be “completely destroyed and successive generations will find themselves in a morass.
"We have a duty right now to call an end to what is happening in our society.”
Parliament does not hold people to account, and we have had to fall back on the courts, our last line of defence, Manuel said.
He called on people to focus on what matters: When contemplating the calibre of current global leaders, “it seems to be okay for people to get away with what they can get away with.
"Our own president is corrupt and has demonstrated himself as incapable of leading this nation.”
It was necessary to construct a political order with men and women who care and who want to be held accountable, in order to create a caring government according to a value system and a set of commitments that our Constitution described.
Business as a moral protagonist
Also on the panel were AngloGold Ashanti chair and convener of SaveSA, Sipho Pityana, and Nedbank Group chief executive, Mike Brown.
Pityana said business had a responsibility to play a meaningful role as an important partner in society.
“I don’t believe we can keep business out of politics, but it is not appropriate for them to be political activists.”
The recent period of business reclaiming its voice had been greatly encouraging, Pityana said, and business should be prepared to convey a tough message to the leadership of government when they meet.
This was necessary in order to correct and make changes for the benefit of the whole of society.
Business must be engaged and be able to lobby parties and Parliament, because it was through influencing and shaping policy that the private sector could assist to create macroeconomic conditions favourable for growth.
Brown said that while business had historically avoided any involvement in politics, there had been a realisation that: “politics drives policy, which in turn drives economic outcomes, which drives the health of society over time.
"It is therefore in business’ interest to be involved in the policy, and involved in the politics,” he added.
It was “incredibly difficult to run a successful business in an unsuccessful society,” he said.
Business was an integral part of society, but could only prosper if it has a social license to operate, Brown continued.
“Business’s role is to maximise the value of the enterprise for all stakeholders, and not just to create maximum value for shareholders.”
He said South African company law was progressive on this point.
Pityana called on business to adopt an attitude of introspection, as state capture allegations and the Gupta leak revelations had implicated some very prominent players from the private sector.
Many companies were the beneficiaries of grand corruption under apartheid, and this had continued, he said.
Populism doesn’t make wealth
He argued that business was not a homogenous entity, and neither was there a singular entity such as black business.
Brown added that high-level narratives such as “business is white, labour is black and government is corrupt” were not helpful or constructive.
In order to encourage employment in a recessionary environment, Brown said that South Africa would have to create policy suited for the workforce it actually has, and not for the one we wish we had.
“In the short term, have to create opportunities for the types of jobs that our workforce is actually capable of doing.”
“We quite simply have to get the economy growing,” Brown said, in order to create jobs and a sustainable distribution of resources.
“We run a very real risk that when the economy isn’t growing, the political rhetoric will ratchet in favour of populist policy, which we know from examples all around the world may get votes, but will not get sustainable wealth creation or distribution.”
Business stands for a successful South Africa, and recognises the need for a growing, transforming and redistributive economy, he added.
Towards an inclusive society
Part of creating an inclusive society was becoming conscious of curbing the wants of capitalism, which create a chasm in society, Manuel explained.
Capitalism does not teach restraint and puts no limitations on the amount people want to accumulate, which in turn has implications for conduct and the propensity for corruption.
Pityana said it would not be possible to create a cohesive society in South Africa “if we are not prepared to share.
"Part of a cohesive social project and the society we are seeking to create is to ensure those who are outside are brought in, or social cohesion in this society will never happen.
"As long as people are excluded, they will continue to undermine the system as they will have nothing to lose.
“Inclusive growth is the way to go, but we have to determine what that means,” he concluded.
• City Press is a media partner of the Gibs forums.