Where were you on 1 May 2019?
If you are like most other South Africans, you were enjoying the day off as our nation commemorated Worker’s Day.
But not so for Edward Kieswetter, the brand new South African Revenue Services (SARS) commissioner. Sitting at his desk, the commissioner spent his Public Holiday penning a four-page letter.
He began the note, to the thousands of people employed by our revenue service, by saying how thrilled he was to be back at SARS, humbled by the opportunity to head the service he had helped build with former SARS commissioner and present-day Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Playing open cards, Edward fully accepted that State Capture has occurred (including that SARS had been caught up in it), remarking that the damage to our country is inestimable.
He rounded out his Worker’s Day letter by laying out, to the organization, how they, its people, could hold him liable, and how he would hold them accountable.
In closing, he painted the picture of what he hoped to achieve, working in unity with his SARS team.
It was an opportunity to identify his position on matters that were important to him, a way to build trust and a textbook case of ethical leadership. At a panel discussion, Edward recently explained, “People don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do expect us to be authentic and to die fulfilling our promises – or not make them in the first place.”
It makes one think: what is ethical leadership, and what is it calling us to answer?
One interesting opinion is that of Tracy Hackland, the CEO of Columba Youth Leadership. The programme does community work among young South Africans, especially in underprivileged schools.
Her view is that ethical leadership is the “connection between character and values, driven by a sense of purpose. Ethical leaders do the right thing all the time, even when they don’t have to, for the collective good and not for themselves; Ethical leaders serve, they aren’t there to be served by others.”

She explains that, in her experience, the moment her programme graduates learn that leadership is not an exercise of power over others but rather a responsibility to others, their self-interest decreases substantially. The surprising impact is that it also exponentially increases the control of their destiny, seen through improved school results or the roles they take in their communities.

Another view is that of Rabbi David Lapin, the global business leadership strategist who helped draft SA’s first Code of Ethics for the first King Report. He believes ethical leadership resides “in the injunction of doing no harm, something that appears so simple until you try to offset the very different needs of the four stakeholders that make up any business: the shareholders, the employees, the customers, and the communities.”

He suggests a simple mantra to follow: “We serve the customers, not the shareholders. We reward the shareholders; we support our staff to serve the customers, and we improve our communities.”

Sounds simple enough, right?

However, what happens when there is a trade-off between profit and prosperity?

The gospel, according to Milton Friedman, followed by corporates for decades, answers always to maximise profits to benefit shareholders. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to corporate collusion.

 Instead, let’s choose to follow the teaching of Colin Mayer, Saïd Oxford Business School’s former dean. He advises to instead focus on creating prosperity, making money to reinvest as a means to create more opportunities, not as a means in itself. That’s notably more relevant in a country with the extent of unequal wealth distribution, like South Africa.

 As a nation, we could all benefit if we remember ubuntu, the teaching that we exist because of others, not because of ourselves. It calls on us as leaders, to empower people – rather than prescribe.

 Ethics is about doing the right thing – all of the time. It’s not something that can be written down, because the law is full of loopholes – instead, it’s about standing for what is right, regardless.

 We each have a role in upholding a culture of ethics, within our economy and society-at-large. If we are serious about re-energising an economy ruined by State Capture, corruption, and corporate collusion, we need to start doing things differently.


- adapted from an Opinion Piece in the Daily Maverick (July 2019)