OPINION: The Nene case: An ethical mixed bag

Deon Rossouw

In the aftermath of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s testimony at the commission of inquiry into state capture, and his subsequent resignation, South Africans have been left with a mixed bag of ethical sentiments. 

Minister Nene has given us two pictures of himself that seem to be contradictory – a courageous person who resisted signing off on a deal that would have crippled the economy, and a dishonest person who met several times with the infamous Guptas and then lied about it. Which picture is the real Nene? Is it possible to choose one?

The reality is that, like any person, Nhlanhla Nene is not infallible. None of us is all good or all bad at all times. It is human to err. This does not mean that we can’t distinguish between persons of integrity who tend to act in an ethical manner fairly consistently, and unscrupulous characters with a reputation for, and record of, unethical conduct. 

In the case of Nene, he did not recognise the inappropriate nature of his meetings in Saxonwold as a failing, and lied on national television about the nature of his relationship with the Gupta family. Then again, the fact that he admitted to his failing, and then offered to resign, is perhaps evidence of the very sort of virtuous character which is in doubt.

The case of Nhlanhla Nene is a timely reminder that we may need to apply more nuance in our assessment of ethical failures. This is something that does not come naturally or easily in an environment where binary thinking reigns supreme, where a person is either good or bad, pure or corrupt, a freedom fighter or a sell-out. In reality, there are many shades between each of these states. 

To use a sporting analogy, it is as if South African social commentary functions like a soccer referee who only knows one kind of penalty: lifetime ban. Shoving one’s opponent or punching a linesman gets the same harsh reaction, when perhaps the former warrants only a warning or a yellow card. 

Analogously, we seem to overlook the fact that there is a range of "penalties" available, that include, say, suspension, or further inquiry. That is not to say that Nene’s resignation was an inappropriate outcome, especially as there is still a great deal more to be revealed, not only about the nature of his liaison with the Guptas, but also regarding reports of his alleged nepotism at the Public Investment Corporation. A "lifetime ban" may be just what he deserves. The point is rather that we should be more nuanced in assessing the nature and gravity of ethical failures, and take care not to instinctively opt for the lifetime ban. 

Perhaps spending the rest of the game on the bench would have the desired effect? It is at least worth asking the question.

Starved for justice

As a nation, we have been starved of justice for many years now, and so justifiably have no appetite for corruption in any form. Invariably, though, "zero tolerance" is not the right attitude to adopt when dealing with ethical judgements. There is a sweet spot somewhere between total apathy towards the morality of public leaders, and assigning all who transgress in any way to the trashcan of history. 

If we cannot admit of degrees between these extreme reactions, we will lose the intellectual tools to distinguish between someone like Bathabile Dlamini and someone like Nhlanhla Nene. The former’s handling of one of the most important social services offered by the state, namely social grant payments, has been described by the Constitutional Court as “reckless and grossly negligent”. Yet, she has shown no signs of remorse or offered to resign. 

Nene, in contrast, has self-disclosed his failings (albeit under pressure), apologised, and asked to be relieved of his duties. 

Another reason for why the current context is so volatile, and such fertile ground for wild judgements, is the failure of the ruling party to censure leaders who go astray. Under the guise of "unity", the ANC seems averse to coming out strongly and reprimanding its own people. This played out to an extreme degree in the case of Jacob Zuma, who was able to ask at the time of his resignation, with some legitimacy, what he had done wrong. The ANC never did quite say – not explicitly, anyway. 

At this point in time, there are a number of high-profile individuals in the party who have acted clearly unethically, and yet their punishment so far has all been the same: none. This has set a dangerous precedent, which adds to the rage experienced by citizens. 

It was common practice under the apartheid government for political prisoners – guilty of attending illegal gatherings or of distributing pamphlets, for example – to be incarcerated along with prisoners convicted of such crimes as rape and murder. The insidious intent of this policy was clear: to treat them the same way as hardcore criminals were treated, and break their spirit of resistance through fear and humiliation. 

Silence can be interpreted as condonation

In the new South Africa, we subscribe to the idiom "just deserts", which means deserved punishment or deserved reward. It is a critical component of a fair and equitable society, which is the sort of society envisaged by the South African Constitution. 

President Ramaphosa was rescued from making a tough decision on whether he should outright fire his Minister of Finance, by Nhlanhla Nene’s offer to jump ship. However, he is still facing a number of other tough choices regarding members of his cabinet who have been less than honest and much less than competent. Until now, he has mostly "outsourced" these decisions to various commissions of inquiry. 

Ramaphosa’s acceptance of Nene’s resignation and the appointment of Tito Mboweni has been widely hailed as courageous and timely, but he remains silent on the ethical failures of members of his cabinet such as Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba. This silence can easily be interpreted as condoning their actions, or as a lack of ethical courage on his behalf. 

Ethical leadership requires being aware of the "big picture" at all times, and always bearing in mind the future ramifications of today’s actions. Ramaphosa must make a strong statement accompanied by decisive action. In doing so, he can outline the beginnings of a precedent for judging the actions of our public leaders in a fashion that admits of degrees of wrongdoing, without sliding into acceptance of wrongdoing. The longer the public is left to draw its own conclusions, the greater the damage. 

- Professor Deon Rossouw is CEO of the Ethics Institute.

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