The decision by President Jacob Zuma to retain in his Cabinet Bathabile Dlamini and Faith Muthambi (albeit with the latter in a new role as Public Service and Administration Minister) brought to mind arguments about the vital relationship between an individual’s competence and his or her ability to act ethically.
Professor Lynn Paine, of Harvard Business School, highlighted this crucial dynamic last year at an event hosted by the Ethics and Governance Think Tank of the Gordon Institute of Business Science.
Paine spoke at a function that was also addressed by former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, whose 9/12 axing in 2015 shook citizens and markets alike, as Zuma moved to realise his ambition of taking control of the last bastion of ethical administration within government. Both citizens and markets were only soothed after the President bowed to pressure and reappointed the well-respected Pravin Gordhan to replace his original choice for the position, Des van Rooyen. However, his late-night March 30/31 reshuffle demonstrated what the cynics always warned: Gordhan’s appointment was but a temporary setback and the keys to the National Treasury would eventually be relinquished.
Returning to the point, however, about the link between competence and ethics, it is Pain’s contention that the execution of values across an organisation depends as much on a person’s capabilities as the person’s ethics. “Often misconduct – actions that create distrust – has to do with a lack of competence,” she explained. In other words, values are critical, but the absence of the requisite skills can create ethical difficulties for even the most well-intentioned employee or government official.
It’s probably too early to make a call on the capabilities of all ten new Ministers, some of whom have merely changed portfolio. However, Zuma’s decision to release his most competent Minister (Gordhan) is suggestive of a leader who is willing to prioritise loyalty (or political calculus) ahead of capability when choosing his executive.
Now, had the March reshuffle occurred at a time when South Africa had already attained the ‘capable developmental State’ vision outlined in the National Development Plan, it would still be worrying, but not necessarily catastrophic. In that context, the public service would be “immersed in the development agenda, but insulated from undue political influence”.
However, if the social grants and South African Broadcasting Corporation crises have taught us anything, it’s that the calibre of the Minister still matters. If he or she is weak and/or incompetent, the consequences can be quite devastating. Add corruption to the mix and a country is courting institutional collapse.
An incapable State provides fertile ground for unethical behaviour, including so-called ‘State capture’. And, as Gordhan cautioned recently at Ahmed Kathrada’s memorial service, there is a risk of State capture becoming “economic sabotage”, whereby the sole motivation of those in authority is greed and self-enrichment to the detriment of society as a whole.