"We should not have to be dragooned into setting high standards in public life. We should willingly seek maximum openness about what our public representatives do, and receive." These words are as true today as they were in 1996, when senior African National Congress member Kader Asmal said them.
Intrinsically connected with the advent of a democratically elected Parliament was an attempt to build a culture of integrity among elected representatives. A code of ethics was drawn up for MPs and members of the executive to declare their assets. In Parliament, an ethics committee was set up to further increase accountability. The watchwords were transparency, accountability and openness.
The codes of ethics for both MPs and the executive clearly envisage that elected representatives not "expose themselves to any situation involving the risk of a conflict between their official responsibilities and their private interests" or use their public positions for private gain.
In addition, the codes clearly state that interests that must be disclosed include shares, sponsorships, gifts, benefits, foreign travel and land. The code governing the executive clearly states that even liabilities must be disclosed, as well as the interests of spouses and dependent children.
When the codes were put in place, the emphasis was on building a culture of accountability and ensuring elected representatives and officials "did the right thing". The central aim was never really punitive, but preventative.
In 2003, the Institute for Democracy in SA (Idasa) released a report titled Ethics in Post-apartheid SA, outlining the difficulties in the ethics regime and its often patchy implementation. Scrutinising the records of cabinet disclosures at the Union Buildings proved difficult and it was never clear how extensive executive declarations actually were.
Again in 2006 the auditor-general reported that "declarations of interest by ministers, deputy ministers and government employees" was cause for concern. Also, the Public Service Commission found that, on the face of it, 14 out of 20 ministers and most deputy ministers had not disclosed their financial interests, as required in terms of the Executive Members' Ethics Act and pursuant codes.
It is therefore cause for concern that it appears that President Jacob Zuma has not yet disclosed his financial interests as required by law. The usual practice is that the secretary to cabinet monitors disclosure. In terms of the Executive Members Ethics Act as well as the related Executive Ethics Code, members of the cabinet must disclose all financial interests and liabilities as well as those of their spouses and dependent children, within 60 days of assuming office. Zuma is therefore in breach of the law.
The main aim of the legislation is to prevent blatant conflicts of interests which result in personal gain trumping the interests of the country. That the Presidency does not seem concerned about this breach of the rules is not only undesirable but sets an unhealthy precedent. Why should ordinary MPs or ministers disclose their assets if the president has failed to do so?
Despite what appears to be obfuscation by Zuma's advisers, there is no ambiguity about the law - he must disclose. During the trial of Schabir Shaik, the president's former financial adviser, information about Zuma's then chaotic financial affairs came to light.
Recently there have been reports of one of Zuma's wives benefiting from a catering contract in KwaZulu-Natal and questions were raised regarding the allocation of the contract . It thus becomes a source of discomfort when the president appears casual about disclosure, when the rules state clearly that this ought to have happened .
If elected representatives do not follow the rules of disclosure of financial interests, the public's right to know is blunted. Zuma has made much about the need for a "moral code" and a discussion about morality. It is probably undesirable for him to try to initiate this type of discussion. All citizens really expect of their elected representatives is to provide leadership and to adhere to the rules of the game. If Zuma wants to provide more leadership, the ethics disclosure forms would be a place to start.
Written by: Judith February, head of Idasa's Political Information & Monitoring Service.
This article first appeared in the Business Day, on Tuesday, 9th March 2010.