Improving ethical leadership in our public institutions

The South African state has failed at multiple levels to assure society of its commitment to building a social compact premised on compassion, integrity and accountability. This has not only eroded society’s confidence in its ability to put people before profits and political elites. It has also shattered the very bedrock of what holds a society together – trust. Sekoetlane Phamodi, Accountability Lab Country Director in South Africa, reflects on how to build this trust back up again.

Trust and the accompanying social compact are important from a multitude of perspectives. There’s the trust that citizens and residents should have that our government will always marshal all of its capacity and resources at its disposal to serve us, the people. The trust we in our communities should have in each other and our leaders to keep our streets safe, our children protected and our most vulnerable cared for. 

Then there’s the trust that we, as civilians in our banal everyday interactions should have. Trust that we will do the right thing by each other like wearing our masks to curb the spread of Covid-19. There’s the trust of reporting the water leak in our street when we see it to save the dwindling water supply we all share. Trust to kick up a fuss about being asked for a cool-drink or some other gratification to speed-up our access to public services.

This is the work we endeavour to do at the Accountability Lab in South Africa. We want to make governance work for people everywhere by working with active citizens, supporting responsible leaders and building accountable institutions. We are reimagining how to build accountability to support a world in which resources are used wisely, decisions benefit everyone fairly, and people lead secure lives. 


What It Means To Be Crowned ‘Integrity Icon’  

This work connects deeply to improving ethical leadership in our public institutions through our flagship campaign, Integrity Icon. Many South Africans would agree that our society has had enough of corruption. We find ourselves at a crossroads as to whether we are prepared to rebuild together for all, or if the road ahead should be framed by the aphorism, “g-d for us all and guluva for himself [everyone for themselves]”. Certainly, the latter is not an option. 

A lot of the emphasis in the anti-corruption work in South Africa, so far, has been about naming the deficiencies of our public services (and there are many). There’s also the focus on shaming the public servants and political representatives who breach our trust by looting Covid-19 relief money, extracting sexual favours and bribes for services. This is all to demonstrate how low we have sunk as a people. This work is vitally important, but it’s not all the work that has to be done. I would venture that the hardest work is that of surfacing and building convincing models of integrity, ethical leadership and service excellence. This is so all of society can see ourselves in, and all of society can stand behind to support. 

Many of us, both in government and outside of it, do not readily take the opportunity to name where things are working. For example the public health facilities which have so ably carried the overwhelming burden of care and vaccination under the pandemic. despite the limitations we all know they are weighed down by. Nor do we readily fame the extraordinary frontline personnel, from administrators and cleaners to doctors, nurses and community health facilitators. They have gone over and above the call of duty to make sure that everyone who needs it can access care, drugs, food, clothing, shelter and dignity under the violence of systemic poverty. 

Our work is to surface, celebrate, connect and support these Icons of Integrity who are everywhere, and with whom we interact daily. They are firefighters, like Deon Esau and Jocelin Flank at the City of Johannesburg Fire Department, who are training certified Community Emergency Response Teams. They act as first responders in the fire emergencies that break out in their communities – usually Black and poor – while the state ramps up its capacity to do so. Public servants who use their time off-duty to get young people off the streets, out of trouble, and into structured leadership programs and maybe eventually become firefighters themselves. 


Introducing South Africa’s ‘Integrity Icon’ Public Servants  

These Integrity Icons also include career law enforcement officials who are developing a new generation of investigators and prosecutors to crack down on corruption in the public service. People like Adv. Constance Moitse who is Director of Counter-Corruption and Intelligence at the National Department of Home Affairs. A career civil servant through-and-through, she entered the service as a police constable, worked her way up to become a Section Commander of the Child Protection Unit and then Head of Investigations in the Organised Crimes Unit at SAPS. Through her appointment at Home Affairs, she led the effort to clean up the Department, bringing down cases of identity fraud. 


Integrity Idol Celebrates Unsung Public Officials  

Our campaign winners are also career teachers who are putting in the work to strengthen a culture of reading in township and rural communities. People like Mme Moshalagae Malatji who has used her more than 15 years in the public service as a teacher in the Lebowakgomo District Office of Limpopo to bring books and establish safe and welcoming places in her community for young people to read. She has also supported the government’s efforts to ramp up its capacity to deliver fully stocked libraries in every school. She now heads the province’s Library and Information Services division. 

These icons are social workers who are devising workplace readiness programs in some of the most economically depressed communities. They are people like Unathi Filita who is a Social Worker with the Department of Social Development in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape. She is getting young people employed and empowered to break the cycle of despair. She is also helping take other young people in their communities along with them into a more promising future than the one they have inherited. 

Some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, Integrity Icon is just another award show in a country already awash with award shows – so what?’ Since 2018 when we began implementing the Integrity Icon, we have named and famed 16 Icons from all nine provinces and across all three levels of government. Yes, the most visible work is the award. In our engagement with Icons and their communities, the overwhelming response is that Integrity Icon is at least one platform which recognises and celebrates the commitment of our public servants in their selfless and thankless work. 

Our growing Icons Network tells us over and over again that the award is never theirs alone, but is shared within their respective departments, districts and communities. That being “caught doing the right thing” matters to them. That focusing on the do-gooders and not only on the wrong-doers is profoundly motivating for them. And that “naming and faming” rather than “naming and shaming” empowers them – as it should all of us. 

But Integrity Icon is more than a public service awards show. It’s a platform to model and generate dialogue about integrity in the public sector. It also demonstrates both the importance and impact of honesty and taking personal responsibility among civil servants for the benefit of the people and communities whom they work to serve. 

The secret sauce of our work is how it shifts narratives and reframes our conversation about corruption from “how bad things are” to identifying “who in our community we can support to withstand and overcome it”. It sparks national conversations on integrity and good governance. It brings all of society along in surfacing public service role models for aspirant and early career public servants to know. Our work also sees the kinds of people we need to strengthen the public service, as well as the values that they should embody. It enables us all to build diverse networks of reformers who can influence change in our departments, agencies and sectors. Those reformers play our part in a whole of society approach to tackling corruption and rebuilding a social compact based on compassion, integrity and accountability. 

Sekoetlane Phamodi is the Country Director of Accountability Lab South Africa. An activist and development professional with over a decade’s experience advancing information and communication rights in Africa, Sekoetlane’s grounding is in feminist movement building, which fired his passion for justice and accountability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.