Integrity Is Everything

By Sandile Memela

We, as a country, have a serious problem with national morale. Everywhere you look – be it at individual, collective or organizational level -you can sense that ‘something is wrong.’ No doubt, over the last 26 years since the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 we have produced bright and charismatic leaders. 

Many have risen to international stature to head international institutions to be significant global players.  In fact, South Africa has gained a reputation as country that punches above its weight. But our own house and family named South Africa is faltering. 

There is a lot of gloom and doom to pick up when you attentively listen to the voice of the people on the ground from all background, race, creed and classes.  These people who see a half empty glass are actually correct. There must be something profound that they have witnessed and experienced for them to feel or see things this way. They have a right to be listened to.

The atmosphere in what Alan Paton called a beautiful land than no man can truly enjoy seems poisoned with rivalry, competition, selfishness, greed and, above all, suspicion and lack of trust. In fact, we lack trust so much that every leader from Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlhanthe, Jacob Zuma and, now, Cyril Ramaphosa is considered guilty of some misdemeanor until they prove themselves innocent.

The suspicion and lack of trust has seeped deep into the soul of this nation. Nobody is spared: ministers, priests, politicians, sports stars and managers, artists, corporate executives, and, of course, corporate moguls and top government ministers. At the risk of generalizing, no one trusts what is happening here, especially in government and corporate world.

The truth has emerged that in terms of perception, South Africa is now perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the most corrupt societies in Africa. We have even surpassed Nigeria. 

Worse, the people have low trust in their political leadership doing anything major to satisfy their aspirations. In more casual conversations people will tell you that everybody’s attitude is “it is our turn to eat.” 

The fact that we have launched Corruption Watch just confirms the perception as people don’t see it as part of the solution but accepting that the problem exists out of acceptable proportions. It is obvious to anyone to see that the problem is caused by the conduct, behavior and attitude of some people in very high office, in business, government, churches and civil society. 

But even in the low class you still find dishonesty and an attitude of looking after Number One at the expense of general good and integrity. No one is innocent. In fact, the problem cuts across race, class, religion, politics, culture and background.

For example, ‘clever blacks’ are cynical towards Economic Freedom Fighters Commander In Chief, Julius Malema that they see as someone who does not walk the talk. 

Much as he is seen as ‘the custodian of the constitution’ in the light of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla and continues to mouth correct utterances on nationalization, the land question, wealth monopoly and racism, people have now become convinced that he was saying those things to throw a veil over his own alleged nefarious activities. There is the VBS saga. The jury is still out. Maybe. Yes. No. 

It is this sort of conduct that deflates and reduces national morale. Of course, the greatest damage is to the perpetrators themselves. They are obsessed with their own self-satisfaction, desiring to put themselves first with all the things that money can buy.  This selfishness and greed has long term consequences that affect the psychological make-up of a national character. 

It violates what the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, calls the sacred “social compact” with the people. It marks a failure where there is lack of credibility and integrity. This gives birth to suspicion and lack of trust. Nobody needs this, especially a society South Africa with everything going for it.

For the first decade or so, South Africa was largely seen as the model democracy in the whole wide world.  We have to admit that trust is essential not only to all relationships but to social cohesion, nation building and working together to make South Africa the society that we all want it to be: non-racial, non-sexist, united and effectively working. It is like the glue that holds us together.
In fact, there is no way that we can translate all the noble ideals enshrined in the constitution without trust. It is like the cornerstone of a multi-story building.
What this means is that everybody, especially our leaders and other prominent people, must learn that their public profile – which is what they are known for – must reflect the soul of this nation. 

We must continue to demand that their actions, behavior, conduct and attitude must be faultless in reflecting integrity, honest and credibility. It does not help anyone to stand on public platform to talk about safe sex, for instance, when they have been busted for unfaithfulness, promiscuity and not using condoms. 
It does not help for anyone to talk about anti-corruption when their lifestyles have not been subjected to an audit.
Who is fooling who, here
It is okay for people to hold high corporate, sports or political office but this does not necessarily mean that people respect you or trust you, for that matter. You will be tolerated out of politeness but do not assume that people care or are listening to what you have to say when your walk does not match the talk. 

Trust is not a right but something that needs to be earned, just like respect.  There has to be something that you are doing that makes people believe that you add value, they can trust and you mean what you say. Trust is something that can only be given. It is not a right that belongs to those who are on high horses. It is something that is a social contract between people and their leaders.

The wise advice to so-called leaders and other prominent members who hold important positions is: if you know you have no integrity, do not bother to claim to be a leader. 

A leader is a person of integrity that the people trust and believe because of what he does and not what he says. Nobody cares for the position you hold or what you say if you have lost your integrity.  Some people wonder why some patriots say negative things about the country and its government and corporate leadership when we are doing so well and are an iconic example in Africa and the world. 

This question demonstrates the plight we find ourselves in: your achievement and success story does not mean anything when you have lost your integrity.
In fact, integrity is everything!

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and civil servant. He writes in his personal capacity

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