The ANC’s conundrum with ethics of leadership

Photo: Matthews Baloyi/African News Agency (ANA)

Women’s month will soon once again come to an end. Yet for those of us familiar with our history, we would know that the month of August 1956 was soon followed by the arrest, in December of that same year, of the majority of the leadership of the liberation movement at the time and lead to what would later become known as the Treason Trial.

By the night of 5 December 1956, four months after the women’s march to Pretoria, 140 leaders across the country had been arrested and charged with treason under the Suppression of Communism Act. Two weeks later, 153 prisoners attended the first hearing to hear the state’s evidence. On trial was not so much the leaders of our people, including those women who led the women’s march in 1956 together with Nelson Mandela, Yusuf Dadoo, Alex La Guma among others, but the vision of a new South Africa through the Freedom Charter. 

In a forward to Helen Joseph’s diary of the trial, If this be treason, Chief Albert Luthuli writes:“…In most parts of the world, law and order are still supposed to be the supreme good. Whatever is, is supposed to be right by some strange logic. The universal prevalence of this view shows to what extent humanity is still under the thraldom of mere habit. Innovators and initiators of progressive change are always suspect…”

These words of Chief Luthuli indicate two truths which were relevant to the times of the trial but which are also applicable to our own days. Firstly, that law and order is not always right. Law is not always the “supreme good”. What the law was “supposed to be” was clearly not the case in South Africa; given that the law itself was the edifice of the apartheid state. 

Secondly, unless we seek that which we ought to do, through innovation and initiative, progressive change will never come about. We cannot simply rely on the law to bring about progressive change. It is not possible to just depend on the law to show us what is right or at least what we ought to do. Rather we must cast off the “thraldom of mere habit” and seek that which is ethical rather than just that which is lawful or legal.

If anything, the lesson of apartheid to us and the world is that we cannot simply cling to the law. Apartheid, though undoubtedly unjust, was lawful because it was based on the law. In fact, what distinguished apartheid from segregation was that it was a legal system of separate development based on race. Apartheid is therefore an explicit example of how laws and that which is legal may be grossly unjust. 

In the past twenty-five years of our democracy, time and again, we have had to deal with the tensions of what is lawful on the one hand and what is deemed ethical, just or right on the other. Our leaders, whether in government, business, civil society or labour have had to be scrutinised in terms of whether their conduct, though maybe lawful, was ethical. 

We have had to frown upon the so-called “gravy-train” both in government and in business. Whether it was ethical that executives in the private sector were earning the huge salaries and big bonuses that they were; this despite these perks being within the ambits of the law. This in the face of the sea of poverty. 

As a nation, we have had to ask ourselves some tough questions about whether it was proper that older men play the role of “blessers” to younger women, given the economic power dynamics, and whether even though this was very much legal, it was ethical.  The examples abound but the fundamental question that must be continuously asked is: if we can do it, whether we must do it. Put differently, just because we are allowed to do something does not necessarily mean we must do it or that it is right or ethical to do it. 

Invariably this is how integrity is nurtured. A person with integrity is not just one who does what is right in terms of the law but also one who does what is right in terms of that which is ethical. In other words, one who goes beyond the call of the law. 

In the face of some of the internal challenges experienced by the ANC in the recent years, the ANC has had to respond to some of these and act. Where members of the ANC have been found to have broken the law, they have been dealt the appropriate sanction. Yet at the same time, the Integrity Commission has also been established to deal with some of the questions raised over the ethical concerns of some members while ANC structures have been asked to rely on the document “Through the Eye of the Needle” to elect suitable candidates to lead the organisation and in public office.

No doubt, another twist to this ethical debate will now be the funding of candidates who now run for office in the ANC. The ANC Constitution does not prohibit the use of money during internal party elections but again, while the law may permit this, we must ask ourselves whether it is ethical to do so. 

Newspaper reports have estimated that more than a billion Rands was used in the campaigns leading up to the 54th National Conference of the ANC. In defending Cosatu’s approaching of “the fund”, the Secretary General, Bheki Ntshalintshali, stated that the federation, though believing that President Ramaphosa should first become the president of the ANC and then of the country, did not want to use the money of member unions for this cause. 

Cosatu’s admitting to approaching “the fund” and not being able to explain what the money was used for is the most crude display of this unethical behaviour. Cosatu suggests that there was nothing sinister about it and indeed there was nothing illegal about asking the fund for money. Yet was it ethical for Cosatu, as trade union federation, to do so?

When the money of big corporates are used, by Cosatu, to undermine the democratic processes of the ANC then this surely must raise some serious ethically questions. When that money, of big corporates, is waved in front of vulnerable workers so that they may eventually support a particular candidate at an ANC conference then surely that must raise some serious ethically questions. 

The majority of ordinary ANC delegates at conferences are poor, if not working class and probably one pay cheque away from bankruptcy. Cosatu and others know this and therefore it surely must be unethical for Cosatu and others to use money in this manner. What Cosatu ought to have done was to insist that these big corporates give these donations to workers so that workers may directly benefit rather than participate in the corporate capture of the ANC.

Ethical leadership was not unique to the ANC during the days of Chief Luthuli, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Alex La Guma and all those others who stood for trial in 1956. Ethical leadership and those with integrity can even be found in the ANC today. However, what we require is honesty and transparency for these are the first steps towards an ethical leadership. Even more so, as articulated by Chief Luthuli, we simply cannot just rely on the law.   

Hlekani Mtileni is the Acting Secretary General of the South Africas Students Congress (SASCO) and Buyile Matiwane is the Westetn Cape Provincial Chairperson of SASCO