Professor William Gumede spoke at Letsema on Friday, 17 May 2019. A renowned author and academic, Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand and executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation.

Gumede began his wide-ranging talk by touching on how trauma, the emotional response to a distressing and extremely negative event, affects the descendants of those who suffer it.

He noted how research is done in Israel and at Berkeley University in the United States indicated how the trauma of the Holocaust was not just restricted to the generation that suffered it. Instead, the mass trauma the Holocaust induced upon the Jewish people is still being felt today. It does so by continuing to impact the day-to-day decisions of those affected by it, an effect observable here in South Africa.

While Israel is today an industrial country, in a developing country like South Africa, Gumede surmised that “in a way, this trauma [caused by Apartheid] is amplified because the context has not changed.”

South Africa’s context is of a grossly unequal nation where poverty, inequality and joblessness plague society. In a place where so many people are desperate for change and a better life, the trauma they suffered in the past, plus their desperate current circumstances, makes them susceptible to populists who promise them the world.

That, as Gumede said, is the easy path. What was much harder, and more impactful, is asking, “How does one lead and rise in poverty?”


History showed that regularly, poor people voted “against their own interests”, with Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Election based on the support he received from blue collar workers. Those same workers are now suffering at the hands of Trump’s trade war with China.

Last year, and closer to home, Gumede produced a report for the ANC that detailed land reform in three African countries: Zimbabwe, Algeria, and Tanzania. These countries, after World War II at different times, did what is on South Africa’s legislative table: land expropriation without compensation.

All three countries, similar to South Africa in the sense they are developing nations, are now among the world’s biggest importers of food, with Algeria ranking first and Tanzania third. Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed, with Gumede convinced that it still has further to fall.

“If you have politicians who argue for land expropriation, most probably it will be the poor if it does not work out, who will suffer. The mass expectation of poverty provides an opportunity for opportunists to sell cheap solutions to complicated problems.,” Gumede said.

“How do you lead in a context where you can be a populist and receive popular support, where you can promise people whatever they want to hear? Where those people trapped in poverty are so desperate, if you promise them the world, they will accept you at face value.”


This question of how to break the wheel of inequality, and its offspring of corruption and unethical behavior, is one Gumede has studied in depth. Apart from South Korea, he ticked off Taiwan and Brazil prior to the 2008 financial crisis as examples of countries that went through their own economic revolutions.

“It is easy to be unethical in an unequal society, where power relations are imbalanced and where, because no other way is known, unethical choices are made,” Gumede said.

“The same applies to how political parties function. If power is entrenched in a single leader, and there is no push back against unethical decisions, there is no debate or new ideas, even through you are not an expert on an issue.”

What the history of development suggests is where there are ethical leadership and an ethical culture in place, these bring about their own societal goods, and in time, transformation.

The reason nations like South Korea and Taiwan were able to engineer their own economic revolutions, asserted Gumede, was beyond policy, significant effort was made towards entrenching an ethical culture and emphasising ethical leadership.

Without ethics, community leaders make selfish decisions, government departments steal from their constituents, traffic police fail to enforce the law and teachers fail to arrive for work. Unethical behavior always impacts more than the individual responsible for it. It is the gunk that brings the gears of the state, society, and business to a halt.

So, where do you start?

Micro-interventions and being accountable for those below you.

The first place to start is with public servants and elected representatives.

“These are the people that set the example. They make decisions that cascade from the state down into society,” Gumede says.

In South Korea, instead of overhauling the entire system, they introduced small measures focused upon ethical behavior.

Gumede listed two examples. The first was every month, public servants would have to clean and beautify their workspace and the immediate area surrounding it. The equivalent in South Africa would be staff at a traffic department cleaning their own offices and the area surrounding it. Coupled with this was random inspections taking place to see if public servants were doing this.

The second example was if a public servant was found to be corrupt, they were not the only ones punished. Their manager would also suffer the consequences, with both removed from their positions and barred from working in the public service again. The private sector? They would not touch disgraced former public officials.

In Japan, ethical behavior was encouraged in the public service because, if you were found to have acted against cultural ethical norms, you would be publicly humiliated. Your family would suffer the same consequences, regardless of their involvement with your affairs.

“To make ‘dramatic’ interventions to change culture, you affect it through small changes,” Gumede said.

Those small changes will gradually feed into the rest of the political system, and over time, as cultural norms are established, public officials would act in an ethical manner. That mean making decisions, not in their own interest but that of the citizen’s their work affects.

That feedback loop then feeds into itself, creating a base of economic energy that can be harnessed and a society operating at its full potential.

“When a society is deeply corrupt and unequal, making small changes has a very big impact,” Gumede says.

External ideas prepare you better for a crisis.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Gumede asserted that land distribution only works if it is done in absolute honesty, otherwise, it was susceptible to capture.

Further topics Gumede touched on included:

  • How South Africa was home to competing governance systems – party vs the Constitution vs traditional vs gangs – which makes enforcing a single ethical culture extremely difficult
  • Former president Nelson Mandela understanding the importance of working with people beyond his own political circle. External people bring a different perspective and fresh ideas, critical elements when dealing with crisis
  • Economic growth is almost impossible to achieve without equality and the elimination of patriarchy. How can you grow if you are not harnessing all of society’s available abilities, idea, and manpower?

Asked about the value of a constituency-based electoral system making public representatives more accountable and ethical, Gumede pointed out the inherent contradiction in that view.

The constant use of the legal system and courts to enforce ethical behavior does so without fixing the root of the problem. The only way to guarantee ethical behavior from society’s different actors is to make ethics a part of a person’s culture and daily life.

As Gumede notes, he once believed ethics could not be taught. Now, however, he firmly believes if you can find a way of making ethics a part of a person’s culture, the potential for change, change that makes a real difference, is great.

*This piece was published on the Letsema website. To view the article on their website click here.

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