SA punches above weight, but integrity is everything

Sandile Memela. Pictures: Nokuthula Mbatha Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

Sandile Memela. Pictures: Nokuthula Mbatha Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

Published Feb 22, 2024



We, as a country, have an unending problem of national morale.

Everywhere you look – be it at individual, collective or organisational level - you can sense that “something is wrong”.

No doubt, over the last 30 years since the dawn of a democracy and freedom, we have produced bright and charismatic leaders in business, sports and entertainment.

Many have risen to global stature to head international institutions to be significant global players.

In fact, South Africa has gained a reputation as a 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 that 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 that has emerged over the last three decades is regarded with suspicion or condemned as someone who puts himself, his family and friends as number one. In fact, most are considered guilty of some misdemeanour until they prove themselves innocent.

The suspicion and lack of trust has seeped deep into the soul of this nation. Nobody is spared: presidents, deputy presidents, ministers, priests, politicians, sports stars and managers, artists, corporate executives, and, of course, corporate moguls and top government ministers.

At the risk of generalising, no one trusts what is happening here, especially in government and the corporate world.

The truth has emerged that in terms of perception, South Africa is now seen, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the most corrupt societies in Africa. A well-travelled government official said the other day that “we have even surpassed Nigeria.”

Worse, at a time when the country is preparing for elections, 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 every dog for himself.”

The fact that we have institutions like Corruption Watch just confirms the perception as people don’t see it as part of the solution, but acknowledging that the problem exists out of acceptable proportions.

It is obvious to anyone to see that the problem is caused by the conduct, behaviour and attitude of some people in very high office, in business, government, churches and civil society.

But even in the low class, if there is such, 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 EFF commander-in-chief, Julius Malema that they (see as one) who is not fit to run the country because, for a fleeting moment, he had snot running down his nose. They say how can a man who cannot clean or blow his nose run a country?

Much as he is seen as an alternative to the allegedly corrupt ANC government, people are increasingly convinced that he is essentially an ANC product and cannot do things differently. Worse, 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 whatever spirit of patriotism that some people may hold and cherish. It marks a collapse of love for one’s country and thus, a failure where there is lack of credibility and integrity. This just fuels self-destruction and a downward spiral to self-defeat because of lack of trust. Nobody needs this, especially a society like South Africa with everything going for it.

For the first decade or so with Nelson Mandela at the helm, 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 values and soul of this nation.

We must continue to demand that their actions, behaviour, 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 must automatically 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.

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!

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

Pretoria News