While cleaning my junk mail folder a few days ago I noticed an email with the subject line ‘legal/unethical trick making $5K/Week Oil Trading.’ This subject line immediately jolted my mind into thinking about the divide between what is legal and what is ethical. Notice that in this example the word ‘legal’ and ‘ethical’ are separated by what seems like an insignificant line. By putting the words together the author of the email is cleverly suggesting that a person should have no qualms in doing something that is unethical as long as he has covered his legal basis.
If I read things correctly this is basically the argument used by those who want President Jacob Zuma to be exempted from paying any money towards non-security upgrades in his Nkandla home. Most of the argument used to exonerate the president is done on the basis of the law and not on the basis of ethics or morality. After the release of the much maligned report by the Police Minister, Nathi Nhleko the Catholic bishops referred to the expenditure in Nkandla as ‘morally unjustifiable.’
In their statement released in the Sunday Times this week they denounced what they referred to as ‘poor ethical leadership of President Jacob Zuma.’ Some people might argue that words like ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ belong in the realm of religion and not in politics and it is unfortunately this dichotomist view that has got us into the quagmire we find ourselves in right now. To me ethics are universal and apply in every context.
In fact ethics and morals are the glue that binds a society together and in many instances societies have a moral code that precedes religions that were introduced later in that society. For example when President Jacob Zuma was castigated for adultery and a polygamous lifestyle he often used a culture-based moral code as a defence which shows that his culture has a well-developed moral system.
I wonder then what that system says in a situation of having house improvements worth R246 million done in a country suffering extreme levels of poverty and underdevelopment. Is there nothing within the conscience of the President that finds the ostentatious work done on his private home morally repugnant? Surely our president must have a moral compass that governs his life and directs the private thoughts that fill his mind.
I do not want to believe that our politicians will continue to look for legal technicalities and loopholes every time they deal with the expenditure of public funds. Political leadership should not be what you can get away with but rather what you can give away in terms of service to humanity. In fact leadership in general is not about the leader but about those he leads. Therefore the debacle around Nkandla is not about security issues or political lackeys around the president but about Jacob Zuma himself, the man.
It is about his moral compass and sense of balance. When someone raised the issue of the kind of legacy the president will leave behind I said I wondered if the word ‘legacy’ even features in his mind. Seriously, if it did then he would not be behaving the way he is doing currently in parliament. It does not matter how provoked he is, a head of state should not clown in an institution like the nation’s parliament.
When all else fails in terms of civility and cordial debate it is to the president we should all look up to for leadership and guidance. It is not expected that he would join the circus and then endeavour to be its chief clown. So are we going to continue with the ‘legal slash unethical’ paradigm of thinking or we will we shift to ‘legal slash ethical’? Failure to separate the legal framework from a moral/ethical code is untenable and serves only to enrich lawyers and elevate morally bankrupt politicians.