Ethics must come from the people

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IT’S four for four – four times I travelled to Tshwane last week (in those rainstorms) and four times I got pushed around by blue-light vehicles, twice on one day. And on the last day, miraculously free of blue lights, I got bullied by several cars wearing diplomatic plates (I wouldn’t budge, so nyeh).

Is this what it’s like to live and work in Tshwane, guys? If it is, wow, sorry for you.

The first blue-light convoy hit just as I passed under the R55 bridge – where roadworks scrunch the road down to two lanes, one hemmed in by barriers, the other cobbled out of the emergency lane – and at less than ten kilometres an hour in rush-hour traffic, you have plenty of time to notice how the tarmac just to your left ends abruptly, creating a slight but possibly tyre-damaging drop to the dirt if you were to be pushed off the tar.

And that’s just what the blue-light thugs forced us to do – go off the tar. In very foggy and rainy weather. I yelled obscenities as they whipped past, one, two, three vehicles with heavily-tinted windows.

I thought, I’ll gladly move over for ambulances, okay, also for police… I suppose. But for a blue-light convoy? Aaargh. Deep resentment.

The hierarchy that had sprung automatically from my subconscious as a simple explanation: layer one, ambulances and emergency vehicles, gets a rapid and willing response from me; quite some way behind is layer two, police or Metro police, for whom I’ll move aside grudgingly; layer three, politicians, for whom I move only out of fear of what their beefy-necked security will do to me if I don’t.

I trust that the paramedics and firemen and women are doing their vital jobs, you see. I’m not sure whether our law enforcement officers are on the job or on the take, whether they’re using their sirens because someone needs their help urgently or because they think they’re too important to be stuck behind another vehicle.

And politicians? Ptah!

Yeah, I know; every now and then, you come across a policeman or woman who strives to keep their oath to serve and protect the people. But Paul McNally’s book The Street echoes perfectly my few but damning experiences of police taking bribes in the shadow of a mine dump; of stories told by those working in vulnerable communities, who cannot rouse the police to action when there is a missing child, or a gun battle just two streets away, or criminals brazenly walking off with stolen solar panels, as my friend watched: she was on the phone giving a blow-by-blow description to the police, who said “they needed more evidence” before coming to the scene.

And yes, an occasional politician actually does do the job they vowed to do when they entered Parliament. Yunus Carrim, chair of the standing committee on finance, for example, has earned kudos several times, most recently for standing up to industry bullies on the sugar tax, for actually thinking about what is right and what is best for the people of this country.

But you can count the Carrims and Naledi Pandors, the hard workers, the servants-of-the-people, on your fingers. The rest, from the do-nothing, my-turn-to-eat councillors (up to R35 000 a month even part-time) to the snoring-on-the-job, gravy-scoffing MPs (R83 000 minimum, to over R190 000 a month for ministers), are far too often the very opposite of public service.

As I laboured through traffic and thunderstorms, the radio station that kept me company was full of Steinhoff – ‘South Africa’s Enron’, as one commentator dubbed it. And somehow it seemed that the blue-light brigades and the ‘accounting irregularities’ meshed seamlessly.

Because they feed on each other, don’t they? There’s no corrupt government without corrupt business – and both of them quite often have shady friends, at one or two removes.

A consultant of some kind spoke earnestly about business ethics. Ethics-schmethics. Both business and politics suffer from what Stephen Grootes called “short-termism” – their time horizon is a couple of years at best, years in which making good (for yourself) is the primary focus.

Take the bribe, abuse the blue-light privilege even if it endangers ordinary people, fiddle the books, illicitly transfer the money offshore, do whatever it takes to score as much as possible, who cares who it hurts (the Steinhoff fallout impacts three huge pension funds badly, but also “every large asset manager in the country, including Allan Gray, Coronation, Investec, Foord, Discovery and Old Mutual” ).

No, the ethics have to come from us, the people. Those who care enough to fight – organisations like Section 27, for example; those fighting the ridiculously expensive nuclear deal with its endless possibilities for corruption (such as OUTA  and Earthlife Africa); investigative journalists like amaBhungane; organisations like Global Financial Integrity, revealing the dirty truth about planet-wide business practices – they deserve our focus and our support, with funding and/or input (volunteer services, for instance).

And we need more like them: how about a group of citizens keeping tabs on standards for auditing practices (which are beginning to seem less rigorous than they should be, aren’t they?), and on what audits reveal about business practices? Does anything like this exist? If not, shouldn’t someone start one?

Because “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” (Dr Seuss, The Lorax).

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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