Ethics know no colour — it’s knowing just right from wrong

12 March 2019,

Like ethics, competency, too, has no skin colour, in fact, competency has no external identifier except itself

Are ethics “black” or “white”? No. Ethics are colour-blind. Illegal, illicit or unethical actions by anyone in the business community diminishes the credibility of the entire business sector in the eyes of the public.

It is a pity that, judging by media debate, whether on the radio, online or print media, one may conclude that ethical conduct is reserved for white people or white business executives.

The ongoing public commissions have brought into sharp focus the unquestionable absence of ethical conduct; those standards and values needed as the foundation of our democracy — a sense of decency, a dose of discretion, an unobstructed view of right and wrong, an instinct about acceptable boundaries.

Indeed, recent narratives, spurred in part by the current inquiry involving the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), could be construed with giving corruption a skin colour. And the colour is not white.

For example, if one has to believe Magda Wierzycka’s opinion, Unknown entities thrive on incredible PIC largesse and Carol Paton’s Dots connected between BEE and corruption, one would think there was never the Steinhoff heist, KPMG, VBS Bank, Resilient and EOH.

Wierzycka writes about questionable brokerage and asset management fees paid to, among others, black stockbrokers and asset management firms, as the litany of misspent public servants’ money. Paton insinuates that the war of words between the presidents of the Black Business Council, Sandile Zungu, and his counterpart at Business Unity SA, Sipho Pityana, proves that there is some relationship between BEE, state procurement and corruption. “The relationship between BEE and cronyism and corruption — admittedly never that far away — deepened with the shift to procurement,” she wrote.

These narratives may cause one to think there was never a white-managed corporate scandal — let alone apartheid rule and other ethical lapses.

Unlike transformation and Broad-Based BEE (B-BBEE), ethics is not about skin colour. That central moral compass of doing the right thing is a human characteristic that is genderless, colourless and creedless.

For me and my organisation, the Association for Black Securities and Investment Professionals (Absip), all the abovementioned issues reveal that wrongdoing rests with the morality of an individual, irrespective of their skin colour.

Indeed, financial-sector professionals have to hold themselves to an even higher form of ethical principles, for a great deal of our responsibility is a fiduciary one, where we are entrusted with the care and safeguarding of other people’s money. It is for this reason that Absip is as explicit as it is in its pursuit of ensuring an ethically run, transformed and equitable financial sector in SA. All members, whether individuals or corporates are automatically expected to adopt and internalise the essential guiding principles and code of conduct that we, as a body, espouse.

While we don’t have any jurisdiction to police this in everyday actions, this is our expectation and what we stand for. As an industry body, we could never know what goes on in the hearts and minds of each of our members in each of their dealings, but what we do know is that we expect them to uphold the organisation’s high standards of integrity and professionalism.

We believe our members, like all members of the public, are innocent until they are proven not to be so. Should any of our members be implicated in any wrongdoing, we would expect them to submit themselves to a review process that would allow them to clear their names or accept the consequences, if innocence is not the adjudicated outcome.

Colourless competency

Like ethics, competency, too, has no skin colour. In fact, competency has no external identifier except itself. In the arena of intellectual capital, which financial services rests on, a young, small business with the right talent could be as, if not more, capable of delivering a relevant service as a large multinational brand. The PIC, and entities with similar transformation and growth objectives, have sought to provide opportunities to all businesses, whether big or small, known or unknown, black or not.

Ethics in business or in anyone’s personal capacity is as simple as knowing right from wrong and having the character to do what is right.

Just as a roadmap gives us direction, we need a value system that holds true when we find ourselves bewildered in a maze of ethical dilemmas. We need direction when we face questions such as: “Should I obscure the truth or tell it forthrightly?” or “Should I cook the books or ink the undeniable truth about corporate losses?”

As people, black or white, we should constantly ask ourselves: What is my internal compass founded on? To what or to whom does my personal value system point? Do I believe right and wrong depend on the situation or are determined by principles? What external standard of truth guides my ethical decisions?

Of course, some think ethics is akin to religion and is best left to individualised decision-making. But as Dr Carter McNamara points out in his workComplete Guide to Ethics Management, ethics is always managed — but too often it is managed indirectly.

“The behaviour of the organisation’s founder or current leader is a strong moral influence or directive, if you will, on the behaviour of the employees in the workplace,” McNamara says. “Strategic priorities, such as profit maximisation, expanding market share, cutting costs, etc, can be very strong influences on morality.”

In the final analysis, people have a basic understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, and they expect other people — in business or otherwise — to live up to these principles, BEE or no B-BBEE, commissions or no commissions.

Sibongiseni Mbatha is president of the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals.