The Importance of Ethical Leadership in Infrastructure Development: SAICE Holds an Honest Conversation

The Importance of Ethical Leadership in Infrastructure Development: SAICE Holds an Honest Conversation

20201012 Considering the importance of infrastructure development in South Africa’s economic recovery plan, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) hosted a thought-provoking panel discussion which addressed the necessity of ethical leadership in the corporate sector and public infrastructure development initiatives. The discussion was hosted by means of a webinar on 8 October 2020 and was attended by SAICE members, infrastructure stakeholders and the public at large. 

The discussion was chaired by SAICE CEO, Vishaal Lutchman who provided context: “South Africa is facing many infrastructure gaps, both in the quality and quantity of infrastructure. While infrastructure development is hailed as our catalyst for growth and sustainable development, can we really achieve our goals if people entrusted to lead our initiatives are behaving unethically?” He said that public infrastructure should be executed for the common good, but social justice cannot be achieved without ethical leaders. This spurred commentary between panellists, who included: 

  • Professor Bonang Mohale, Chancellor of the University of the Free State and former CEO of Business Leadership South Africa.
  • Mike Peo, Head: Infrastructure, Energy and Telecoms at Nedbank CIB.
  • Gregory Skeen, Director: Programme Management at the University of Cape Town. 

Commenting on irregular government expenditure and state capture scandals, Prof Mohale began by saying that South Africa has hit a moral low. “The term ‘ethical leadership’ is just for emphasis – because leadership cannot be anything other than ethical.” He said that there are those in leadership positions who claim they are ethical just because they have not yet been found guilty, but this does not mean they have morals.

Skeen joined the discussion in agreement with Mohale, citing the scourge of “endemic corruption”. He said that ethics is more than compliance. “It’s not just about adhering to the law. It is about going above and beyond the various Acts and legislation, and making sure the things you do are right, consistently.” Mentioning the Zondo commission, he said that when infrastructure isn’t delivered, it is a direct result of corruption. “As civil engineers, we have the ability to make a huge difference in people’s lives and the funds are available to do this, but we are being held back by the lack of technical capacity, corruption, and unethical decision making.” He mentioned that this includes the private sector – “We mustn’t think the problems are only in the public sector”. 

In agreement with Prof Mohale, Peo agreed that the concepts of leadership and ethics cannot be divorced. He also considered the wider economic context of the country: “The problem in South Africa is that manufacturing, tourism and mining are sectors we can no longer count on for growth – construction and infrastructure development remains the core for job creation. However, the jobs are not being created because the money set aside for development is not being spent, due to poor procurement processes and unethical leadership.” He said that corruption has become the “ethic” of every state-owned enterprise but private sector is not innocent, as the culture spreads. Prof Mohale agreed, saying that “corruption had grown from being endemic, to becoming systemic,” where a vicious and pervasive cycle is being experienced.  

Prof Mohale said that despite current concerns, South Africans are resilient and will stand up against misconduct. “What we need is a new common enemy – a common purpose – rather than thinking about our personal best interests. We cannot be thinking about the next election – we need to be thinking about the next generation.”

Discussing solutions, Skeen added that engineers have a role to play. “We often sit as gatekeepers for infrastructure development and can make an impact if we keep our eyes and ears open.” He said that ethical business practices are absolutely critical for sustainability – attracting better talent, creating better brands, and improving repeat business. 

In conclusion, Peo said that alternative procurement methodologies such as the public-private partnership model can be helpful in improving the situation. “It means you have multiple sets of eyes looking over projects, three sets of engineers assessing what is being procured, and how.”