Leadership failures at a government level have plummeted SA into a precarious socio-economic position, deterring foreign investment. This vacuum in leadership has impacted all citizens, but particularly those living in disadvantaged communities.

A recent Business Day Dialogues LIVE, in association with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa (EFSA), along with a panel of business, religious, academic and civil society leaders put the spotlight on how to build ethical and accountable leadership in SA.

A deficit of trust in SA’s leadership is the result of years of corruption that have paralysed the economy, pointed out Dr Renier Koegelenberg, executive director of EFSA. He highlighted the need for civil society to set a new agenda for SA by revisiting the qualities, values and strategies to ensure ethical and accountable leaders.

Saving democracy is a global challenge and not an exclusively South African problem, pointed out Professor Thuli Madonsela, Law Faculty Trust chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University.

What is important to understand is the kind of leadership that bought us to this point and the contexts that have made it possible for leaders to become corrupt. We then need to question the kind of leadership that will take the country forward equitably.

The panel agreed that what SA requires are leaders with a servant leader approach. Reverend Jerry Pillay, dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria explained that servant leadership is about putting the interests of others – including the interests of the country – first. It’s not about self-enrichment or entitlement. When adopting a servant leader approach even party allegiances need to be put aside in favour acting in the best interests of the collective.

The problem in SA, he said, is that we don’t have strong moral and ethical leadership, and little accountability when leaders don’t deliver on their promises. What we need are leaders who have the courage to do the right thing and make decisions that will build a better country for the benefit of all its citizens.

Leadership, integrity and accountability are particularly important themes given the upcoming local elections. Will voters exercise their constitutional right by voting for local government leaders based on party allegiance, dislike of a competing party, or based on how a municipality has performed in the past in terms of service delivery and acting honestly and ethically, questioned Professor Jappe de Visser, director of the Dullah Omar Institute and professor of Law at the University of the Western Cape.

“Rather than party allegiances, this decision needs to be made based on broad accountability,” he said.

Visser said he did not believe that centralisation, privatisation, more regulation or even large scale institutional reform was the answer to addressing the deficit in local government leadership.

So, what will entrench a culture of accountability? It starts with selecting leaders who have displayed stewardship, ethics and accountability in their past leadership positions, suggested Madonsela.

There should be no shame in taking accountability, agreed the panel. However, while they also agreed that leaders who have failed in their duties can be rehabilitated, Pillay cautioned against putting people back into positions where they can be tempted to commit wrongdoings.

This was the second in a three-part Business Day Dialogues series in association with KAS and EFSA. The third dialogue, scheduled for DATE, will focus on alleviating hunger.

To watch the full discussion, click here.